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on February 24, 2006
Martin Luther King, Jr., is without a doubt one of the most influential and pivotal figures in twentieth-century history. In addition to his work as a Civil Rights leader, his role as a father and pastor, he also was an extensively published writer. However, he never had the chance to write an autobiography in the traditional sense. We as readers in the present day and the future have lost the private details that might have been fleshed out in a proper autobiography, but this skillfully crafted work by Clayborne Carson has given us a religious and political autobiography, revealed in King's almost countless papers (published and unpublished), interviews, letters, sermons and public statements.
Carson, author and editor of many books relating to the Civil Rights struggle, edited a collection of King's speeches entitled 'A Knock at Midnight', and was selected by the King estate to put together this in conjunction with (according to Carson) dozens of staff and student workers forming part of the King Papers Project. Carson used particular methodology consistently in his reconstruction - that of relying primarily on the words of King himself (utilising early drafts of later writings to discern the difference between authorial and editorial intentions) and developing them as if this overall narrative account was constructed near the end of King's life.
King's autobiography begins at the beginning, with is childhood as a preacher's kid (who was himself a preacher's kid, who was himself a preacher's kid, etc.). King said, 'of course I was religious.... I didn't have much choice.' King explains the different strands in his life, that of being both militant and moderate, idealistic and realistic, as beginning here. Here he developed questions ('how could I love a race of people who hated me?') and some answers (he learned that racial injustice was paralleled by economic injustice, and realised that poor white people were exploited also).
King's call to ministry and call to ethical and prophetic witness in the world developed through his schooling at Morehouse College, Crozer Seminary, and Boston University, where he developed interest in theology and social philosophy that would lead him to eventually to his ideas of civil rights activitsm. This would not take practical shape, however, until he was back in the South and working at churches and participating in actual events. He describes his involvement with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Movement as a mountaintop experience, which also led to an awakening, both in King and in the community, of the power of nonviolent action a la Mahatma Gandhi.
It is almost incomprehensible to read this autobiography and realise that in a span of barely more than a dozen years (Rosa Parks was arrested for her action in December of 1955; King was assassinated in 1968) so much of what we consider to be the central history of the Civil Rights struggle occurred. Within the pages of text, King talks about the struggles of the common people and the dealings with the powerful, from the police in Alabama jurisdictions to dealing with federal government officials and organisations.
In the midst of all of this work, King managed to remain a family man, devoted to his wife and children, and a tireless worker in the church. Carson admits to not being able to develop too much of an interior autobiography in these kinds of sections (as even in King's private papers and writings, too much remains unrecorded), but his life in this regard still comes through many aspects of his writings, sermons and speeches.
This is an incredible book, and should be read as a required part of the education of an American, as it recounts a remarkable and astonishing part of history that continues to shape the direction of the nation to this day.