The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr

*Long Post Alert*

What. A. Book!

While I’ve always admired Martin Luther King Jr and read various articles about him, I’ve never taken the time to dig into his autobiography.

So when I saw this book with a friend, I don’t know whether I borrowed or stole it but I did it with speed. Lol!

I cannot really refer to this book as an autobiography because MLK didn’t write it himself. But reading through, it’s impossible to believe that because Clayborne Carson (the author) did an unbelievable job in delivering MLK to all of us whole.

Books have the power to leave an impression that can last a lifetime. This is one of those where I’m struggling to put my experience with a book into words. I’ll just delve into a four chapters that I found too insightful.

  1. The Montgomery Movement

The day is 1st December, 1955. A public bus pulls to a stop and a calm but badass woman named Rosa Parks boards the bus and sits on the first row of the colored section and quietly watches the bus fill up. A white passenger who has just boarded the bus misses a seat and the bus operator comes over to Ms. Parks ordering her to give up her seat to the white passenger. She utters one word that births one of the most powerful civil rights movements I’ve ever heard or read about. That word is “NO.” The result is her arrest. On the day of her trial, Dr. MLK addresses the crowd and tells the,

“There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression…, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation..”

At that point, a movement is born which calls for a bus boycott that lasts for 381 days. This is more than a year yet during this whole time, black people both young and old refuse to board buses and instead walk miles and miles to work all in unison that they are walking not just for themselves but for their children and grandchildren.

It all ends in victory when the Supreme Court declares segregation unconstitutional and MLK together with some other leaders of the movement ride the first integrated bus with television cameras, photographers and news reports all scrambling to capture that historic moment.

    2. Letter from Birmingham Jail

On April 12, 1963, MLK was in a cell in Birmingham having been arrested for disobeying an injunction seeking to halt their campaigns for civil rights. While there, he received a letter from eight clergymen who were criticizing his actions. His response to them was a 16 page letter which is one of the most moving pieces I’ve ever read in my life and since then, I’ve shared the chapter with so many friends. Here are some excerpts,

“I’m in Birmingham because injustice is here…You deplore the demonstrations taking place here. But your statement fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.We have waited for 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights…Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘Wait’.

But when you have seen the vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your brothers and sisters at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters…when you suddenly find your speech stammering as you explain to your six-year-old-daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky….then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. One may ask ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’

Now what is the difference between the two?..A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.  To put it into terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake…

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal’. It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s anti-religious laws…

Shallow understanding from the people of good will is more frustrating that absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will..”

Whoa! That’s the best I could do in summarizing a 16-page letter. That Birmingham campaign also led to a major victory, the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

3. Selma

When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, many decent Americans became complacent because they thought that the difficult struggle was over.

But the truth was that, as long as Negroes were still not allowed to vote, any progress made was still meaningless.

In Selma, Negroes were the majority yet none of them could vote because of the color of their skin. And the majority who had the courage to complain about the issue had been jailed. That was the America of 1965. Black people were in jail because they could not tolerate these conditions.

When MLK realized that the President was hesitant to step in and help, he decided to start a movement. And Selma was the perfect place.

On they marched from Selma to Montgomery culminating with a speech where he urged all Negroes not to lose heart,

“I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long…

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.

How long? Not long, because you reap what you sow.

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

By the time that march was over, many had been beaten and wounded by racist policemen some injuries proving to be fatal. But that sacrifice in Selma birthed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and before long more than a million Negroes were new voters.

   4. Unfulfilled Dreams

You can’t help but shed a tear when reading this chapter as it details MLK’s final acts and you’re gripped by the passion of a man who fought with everything that he had for a just and fairer country. It feels like at this point he knew that his days were numbered. In his last speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, he states,

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now; because I’ve been to the Mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life-longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people, will get to the promised land. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not a fearing man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the real deal. The book contains so many outstanding speeches and quotes, it’s one of those I never want off my shelf. Just grab a copy for yourself.

Will we ever see such inspiring movements in our time?

Can we all agree that this should have been a compulsory book in High School?

Five-star- kind of book.



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