Martin Luther King Jr Day: The books you need to read about the civil rights activist

Sarah Young
·5-min read
<p>Many use the day as an opportunity to learn about Martin Luther King Jr’s life and achievements</p> (The Independent)

Many use the day as an opportunity to learn about Martin Luther King Jr’s life and achievements

(The Independent)

In January each year, on the Monday closest to his birthday on 15 January, people around the world celebrate the life and lasting legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Born in 1929, Martin Luther King Jr was a Baptist minister who pioneered the US civil rights movement and pressured the American government to outlaw racial segregation and discrimination.

One of his first major roles in the movement came in 1955, when he led the Montgomery bus boycott after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus.

Martin Luther King Jr was also a great believer in peaceful protest, inspired by the Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi. His protests used non-violent tactics, even when the protesters themselves were met with violence from the police.

In 1963, he helped organise the March on Washington, where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. More than 250,000 people gathered in the country’s capital to hear the civil rights leader speak, and it has since become one of the most famous speeches in history.

One year later, Martin Luther King Jr received the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights work.

The activist was assassinated by James Earl Ray on 4 April, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, and the news of his death was followed by riots across the US.

Since his passing, many have used the third Monday in January as an opportunity to learn about his life and achievements.

While Martin Luther King Jr authored a number of books, many historians and biographers have explored his life and influence, meaning there is now an array of literature for people who want to know more about the civil rights hero to choose from.

From autobiographies to child-friendly options, these are the titles to read if you’re interested to learn more about the leader and his fight for equality.

You can trust our independent round-ups. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

‘Why We Can’t Wait’ by Martin Luther King Jr, published by Penguin: £7.99, Blackwell’s

Penguin Books
Penguin Books

Written by Martin Luther King Jr himself, this book details the story of the civil rights movement, recounting pivotal moments that propelled his non-violent campaign for racial justice from prayer meetings to a phenomenon that “rocked the richest, most powerful nation to its foundations”.

The book pays particular attention to the 1963 Birmingham campaign, describing that year as a defining moment.

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‘To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice’ by Michael K Honey, published by WW Norton & Co: £7.56, Amazon

WW Norton & Co
WW Norton & Co

To the Promised Land goes beyond the view that Martin Luther King Jr is purely an advocate of racial equality, by also exploring his commitment to the poor and working class, as well as his call for “non-violent resistance” to all forms of oppression.

The book explores the activist’s desire for a “moral revolution” which he hoped would replace self-seeking individualism with concern for the common good. It also asks the reader to think about what it would mean to truly fulfil Martin Luther King Jr’s vision and move towards what he called “the Promised Land” in our own time.

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‘The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr’ by Martin Luther King Jr, published by Abacus: £10.65, Amazon


Compiled from his own words, this autobiography brings to life the thoughts of the man whose actions helped to change the world.

In 1985, Martin Luther King Jr’s widow, Coretta Scott King, chose Clayborne Carson to edit her late husband’s papers. In addition to publishing numerous collections of King’s speeches, sermons and drafts, Carson assembled all of these works to construct a fascinating first-person account of King’s life.

The book covers the civil rights leader’s work as a minister, touches on his family life and also shares his views on some of the world's greatest and most controversial figures, including John F Kennedy, Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi and Richard Nixon.

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‘The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr Comes of Age’ by Patrick Parr, published by Chicago Review Press: £14.28, Blackwell’s

Chicago Review Press
Chicago Review Press

This book delves into the early life of Martin Luther King Jr – specifically the three years he spent studying for a bachelor of divinity degree at the Crozer Theological Seminary in the south of Philadelphia.

As well as tracing his growth as a preacher and public speaker, author Patrick Parr gives a full-length account of Martin Luther King Jr’s years as a divinity student, having tracked down several of his classmates, who share personal memories, and a white woman called Betty Moitz, with whom he became briefly involved.

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Little People, Big Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr’ by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara, published by Frances Lincoln Publishers Ltd: £8.19, WHSmith

Frances Lincoln Publishers Ltd
Frances Lincoln Publishers Ltd

If you want to educate your child about the life of the civil rights activist, pick up this addition to the Little People, Big Dreams range, which makes the work of Martin Luther King Jr accessible to younger readers.

The book is careful to sensitively handle topics such as racism and inequality, while not eliminating the struggles Martin Luther King Jr faced throughout his fight for justice. It also features beautiful illustrations and extra facts at the back, including a biographical timeline with historical photos and a detailed profile of the King’s life.

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For more literary inspiration, read our guide to Barack Obama’s favourite books

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