The Autobiography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today Americans celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy.  Observed as a federal holiday since 1983- Martin Luther King Jr. Day was re-framed as a national day of service in 1994- it wasn’t until 2000 that every state officially recognized the holiday.  There are few Americans as well-known or oft-quoted as Dr. King, yet many of us have read or heard relatively little from the man himself.  The Autobiography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a great place to start.

Because Dr. King never had the opportunity to write his memoirs, this substantial book has been edited by Clayborne Carson, the immensely qualified Stanford University history professor.  Carson is the editor of the definitive King Papers Project, including the audio version of A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., a worthy addition to your mp3 player.

From his years of research Dr. Carson is able to edit a first-person narrative that traces the arc of Dr. King’s childhood, pastorate, family life, and leadership within the civil rights movement.  This last theme receives the most attention and sheds considerable light on the context- historical, cultural, and theological- of those days.  The well-known events which have been flattened and simplified over time are shown in The Autobiography to have been incredibly complex, nuanced, and without guarantee of success.

This book gives us the chance to see the very human Martin King.  Rather than editing a hagiography, Carson has included the poignant moments when Dr. King experienced fear, doubt and confusion.  Great speeches and prophetic correspondence are interspersed with Dr. King’s deep concern for the safety of his family and emotional toll from living a very public life.

Readers will also appreciate the theology and rooted conviction that emerge from these pages.  Dr. King’s iconic status means his words are often lifted and co-opted for a variety of purposes, resulting in a man bound neither by time nor specific belief.  Such an ahistorical view ignores the fact that Dr. King’s vision and leadership came from somewhere.  Carson captures a man who wrestled intensely with his Christian theology in order to give philosophical and structural underpinnings to a freedom movement that would be assailed from all sides.

In the end, Dr. King saw the death and resurrection of Jesus, “that great event on Calvary,” as the hope for genuine reconciliation and justice, the foundation for “the beloved community.”  The Autobiography makes clear that one of America’s greatest preachers and leaders still has much to teach us today.