Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was — like many great preachers — a great writer.
The Nobel Prize winner for peace never earned any significant literary awards, but he was a master of the written as well as the spoken word, even if it was mostly through his oratory that the words he brought together came alive and became unforgettable.
In addition to composing the famous Letter from Birmingham Jail and drafting world-changing sermons and speeches ("I Have a Dream"), King authored numerous books about his philosophy of nonviolence and the battle for civil rights. Some of these include 1964's Why We Can't Wait — its title an acknowledgment that nonviolence and impatience are not incompatible — and 1967's Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? an activist's guide that has lost none of its relevance or radicalism (King endorses the idea of a government-organized "guaranteed income" for all U.S. adults).
But if King was prolific, the output of the King literary industry is all but immeasurable.
Since the human rights leader's assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, scholars, historians, biographers, gossips, debunkers, hagiographers, amateurs, conspiracy theorists and others have issued volume after volume of alternately essential and disposable works about the life and legacy of King. The scope ranges from Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy, America in the King Years, which numbers close to 3,000 pages, to the Scholastic children's book My First Biography: Martin Luther King Jr., which distills King's message to 30 colorfully illustrated pages.
Needless to say, this year's 50th anniversary of King's death, which is being recognized with a variety of events, projects, tributes and products collectively identified by the rubric "MLK50," has reignited interest in King and inspired many new books about the civil rights leader, civil rights in general and other related topics.
Here is a look at several of the more promising or interesting titles currently or soon to be available:
Redemption: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Last 31 Hours (Beacon Press, 216 pages, $24.95). Former Boston Globe and Frontline investigative reporter Joseph Rosenbloom digs deep into the final day-and-a-half of King's life, from his 10:33 a.m. April 3 arrival at the Memphis airport to his murder on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel at 6:01 p.m. the next day; he also chronicles James Earl Ray's activities during that time. A reporting intern at The Commercial Appeal in the mournful summer of 1968, Rosenbloom's book marks his belated response to his time in a shell-shocked city; the result is "meticulously researched" and "an absolute thriller," according to various cover blurbs by such luminaries as Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow.
To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice (W.W. Norton, 256 pages, $25). Historian Michael K. Honey, author of the acclaimed Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign, returns a decade later with an exploration of King's call for "a moral revolution" against an American economic system that "takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”
As King asked, in a twist on Jesus' words in the Gospel of Mark: "What does it profit a man to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?"
Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel (Yale University Press, 632 pages, $45).
Author Gary Dorrien has a mouthful of a credential: He's the Reinhold Niebuhr professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary; he's also a professor of religion at Columbia University.
So it's no surprise his new book — a must-read for those seeking the origins of Black Lives Matter and other new social justice movements — is described as an "intellectual history" of the effort by King and other black leaders to expose the immorality of the white supremacist thinking that has motivated much U.S. policy since the country's birth.
Chasing King's Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Assassin (Scholastic Press, 384 pages, $19.99).
Intended for young readers (Scholastic recommends the book to grades 7-9), this "page-turner" by Edgar Award-winning author James L. Swanson is a follow-up to his earlier Chasing Lincoln's Killer (hey, it works for Bill O'Reilly).
The thriller aspects of the story are intended to hold the tween reader's attention, but Swanson doesn't skimp on history or context, making the book not just a nonfiction exercise in suspense but a primer on civil rights history and a King biography.
A Spy in Canaan: How the FBI Used a Famous Photographer to Infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement (Melville House, 368 pages, $28.99). Reporter Marc Perrusquia expands on his investigative reporting for The Commercial Appeal to give a fuller portrait of Memphis photojournalist Ernest C. Withers' secret career as a paid informant for J. Edgar Hoover at a time when the beloved and trusted photojournalist had access to all aspects of black Memphis, from the nightclubs of Beale Street to the church basements and restaurant back rooms where civil rights leaders planned their strategies. Uncovered by Perrusquia even as Withers' recognition as a chronicler of black culture has been on the rise, the FBI revelations add complexity to the life and legacy of a man championed as one of Memphis' most significant artists.
To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 464 pages, $35).
Edited by Harvard professors Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry, the book offers "careful, critical engagement" with King's philosophy to help counter the misrepresentation of his ideas by right-wing commentators and those who benefit from a "romantic, consensus history that renders the civil rights movement inherently conservative."
The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age (Chicago Review Press, 304 pages, $26.99).
If Redemption, the story of King's final hours, is the Omega, this is the Alpha: Patrick Parr's book chronicles the time when King was "a cautious 19-year-old rookie preacher" out of Atlanta surrounded by a white staff and white teachers at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, and living in a dorm formerly used to house wounded Confederate soldiers. Described as "the first definitive, full-length account" of a period "long passed over by biographers and historians," the book describes the young King as a pool-playing "prankster" and sometimes incautious plagiarizer who fell in love with a white woman but, more important, embraced his exposure to new viewpoints and cultural backgrounds as he matured into the profound thinker remembered today.