Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday: Top Five Books & Songs

We honor the birthday, and legacy, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a special collection of books and songs that speak to his influence in the Civil Rights Movement, chosen by our Buy Guy, Steve Leach.

Parting the Waters and the other two volumes of the America in the King Years trilogy, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge, by Taylor Branch— This masterwork tells the whole story, keeps the huge cast of characters distinct and fully-formed, and throughout its 2,700-plus pages kept me mesmerized and dumbfounded that all of it happened during my lifetime.

Stride Toward Freedom by Martin Luther King, Jr.—I picked King’s first book, written in 1958, because HPB bought a signed copy of the second printing of the book a few years ago and I was fortunate enough to carry it around to book presentations for a couple of years before we sold it!

Dear Mrs. Parks by Rosa Parks— This is a nice collection of letters written by Ms. Parks in response to admiring young people.  It’s very special to me because my copy was signed for me in 1996 by the Civil Rights heroine

Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 by Juan Williams— This book accompanied the excellent PBS documentary on the Civil Rights movement.  It’s a trove of photos, interviews, and sidebars that vividly describe the mood of the country at the time.

Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley—It’s fiction, an installment in Mosley’s wonderful Easy Rawlins mystery series.  But its setting is racially-torn Watts in 1965, and Rawlins’ assignment puts him right in the midst of it.

Five favorite songs of or about the Civil Rights era:

  1. “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke—often covered, but the original is the best
  2. “People Get Ready” by The Impressions (written by Curtis Mayfield)—also often-covered, possibly improving on this original version, but I’m partial to it
  3. “This Land” by Odetta—Odetta, a prominent musical element of the Civil Rights movement, does a nice version of “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie
  4. “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder—this isn’t the generic “Happy Birthday to You”; it’s Stevie Wonder’s tribute to MLK, from the album Hotter Than July (1980)
  5. “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” by Chuck Berry—not an out-and-out Civil Rights anthem, but a very fine and witty 1956 tribute to people of color in history, inspired by Berry’s observance of discriminatory police actions.

Dr. King’s work continues to serve as the framework for many of today’s social justice movements, and while there is still work to be done, perhaps the books and songs listed here can provide a bit of hope and inspiration as the nation continues to strive toward his dream of equality. What would make your suggested reading and/or listening list as a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life?