Don’t Sanitize Dr. King. Read him.

I don’t like to start off my blog with a pushy title. But on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2016, I see too much watering down, sanitizing the life and work of Dr. King. If you listen to some in the public eye today, you would think all Dr. King ever said or did was “I have a dream” at the 1963 March on Washington.  Dr. King’s life and work mean much more than that. It can be tempting to reduce Dr. King to a soft, “let’s all hold hands” memory. However, that would be false.

Remember that at the time of his assassination in 1968, he was working on the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. The very reason he was in Memphis in 1968 was to protest wage discrimination and unhealthy working conditions for the garbage collectors there. He was not there to simply hold hands and get along.

If we want to learn more about Dr. King’s complex and radical life and work, we must read him. He wrote several books and his speeches and sermons have been collected into many more.  I commend to you three of his books. Some scholars refer to these as his political autobiographies: Stride Toward Freedom is his first book and it recounts the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He writes this first book as a very young man– in his late twenties. Why We Can’t Wait recalls his experiences of Selma and Birmingham. His sense of the world after his campaigns in these cities is more realistic, urgent, and complicated. Finally, the book he wrote in the last year of his life, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community? This book shows us the mind and heart of a man who knows the broken nature of the world. He knows death threats and loss by the time he writes this book. He writes a searing critique of American militarism, capitalism, and racism. He has already won the Nobel Peace Prize when he writes this book and probably has a sense that he might not live much longer. This book is his most reflective– and in some ways– his most sad. But it’s essential reading if we want to understand his necessary and distinctive critique of the world.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes always as a man of faith. But he writes also as one who knows the immense power of the unjust systems he questions. We can all stand to learn a great deal from his questions. Let’s beware of reducing him to a gauzy, comfortable protest song. His life and work matter too much for that.

Photo Credit Top: Public Domain
Photo Credit Books: J. Ross



Published by josephrossnet

Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

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