It’s 50 years this week since Martin Luther King Jr, standing at the Lincoln Memorial, made his “I Have a Dream” speech. The 17-minute address, delivered to a crowd of 200,000, was a defining moment in the struggle for civil rights in 1960s America; and one of the greatest speeches on freedom and equality in the history of that, or any, country.
So, how did a Baptist minister from Atlanta become an icon of 20th-century history? And does his influence still reverberate today?
• Biographies, unsurprisingly, are many, but to hear King’s story in his own words, turn to The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr, edited by Clayborne Carson (Abacus, Dh69). King left no formal autobiography; here, Carson has stitched together King’s writing and speeches on his own life to produce the next best thing. What emerges is a picture of a precocious, rebellious child – a 13-year-old King denied the bodily resurrection of Christ at his Sunday school – who became a searing and incisive thinker on equality and a passionate and persuasive leader.
• From the start, King believed in non-violent resistance to the racial injustice he saw around him. A 1959 trip to India, where he learnt more about Mahatma Gandhi, strengthened this conviction. For a one-volume introduction to King’s thought, turn to A Testament of Hope (HarperCollins, Dh57), a collection of his mature writings and speeches. One of history’s great orators, King created some of his most iconic lines while speaking; the speech now called “I Have a Dream” did not contain those words when it was written – King ad-libbed them on the day.
• So what place does King have among great American leaders and what is his legacy today? Five years after “I Have a Dream”, King, still only 39 years old, was assassinated at a Memphis motel. Today, more than 730 cities in the US have streets named after King and his birthday, January 15, is marked by a national holiday in the US. Turn to Of Thee I Sing (Doubleday, Dh74), in which another iconic American – President Barack Obama – writes in tribute to 13 American leaders, including King.
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