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Carson, author and editor of many books relating to the Civil Rights struggle, edited a collection of King's speeches entitled 'A Knock at Midnight', and was selected by the King estate to put together this in conjunction with (according to Carson) dozens of staff and student workers forming part of the King Papers Project. Carson used particular methodology consistently in his reconstruction - that of relying primarily on the words of King himself (utilising early drafts of later writings to discern the difference between authorial and editorial intentions) and developing them as if this overall narrative account was constructed near the end of King's life.
King's autobiography begins at the beginning, with is childhood as a preacher's kid (who was himself a preacher's kid, who was himself a preacher's kid, etc.). King said, 'of course I was religious.... I didn't have much choice.' King explains the different strands in his life, that of being both militant and moderate, idealistic and realistic, as beginning here. Here he developed questions ('how could I love a race of people who hated me?') and some answers (he learned that racial injustice was paralleled by economic injustice, and realised that poor white people were exploited also).
King's call to ministry and call to ethical and prophetic witness in the world developed through his schooling at Morehouse College, Crozer Seminary, and Boston University, where he developed interest in theology and social philosophy that would lead him to eventually to his ideas of civil rights activitsm. This would not take practical shape, however, until he was back in the South and working at churches and participating in actual events. He describes his involvement with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Movement as a mountaintop experience, which also led to an awakening, both in King and in the community, of the power of nonviolent action a la Mahatma Gandhi.
It is almost incomprehensible to read this autobiography and realise that in a span of barely more than a dozen years (Rosa Parks was arrested for her action in December of 1955; King was assassinated in 1968) so much of what we consider to be the central history of the Civil Rights struggle occurred. Within the pages of text, King talks about the struggles of the common people and the dealings with the powerful, from the police in Alabama jurisdictions to dealing with federal government officials and organisations.
In the midst of all of this work, King managed to remain a family man, devoted to his wife and children, and a tireless worker in the church. Carson admits to not being able to develop too much of an interior autobiography in these kinds of sections (as even in King's private papers and writings, too much remains unrecorded), but his life in this regard still comes through many aspects of his writings, sermons and speeches.
This is an incredible book, and should be read as a required part of the education of an American, as it recounts a remarkable and astonishing part of history that continues to shape the direction of the nation to this day.
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For this book, he weaves through with a leadership lesson in each chapter - and generally places the lesson tied directly to something King did - trying to stay close to chronological order. He also supplies us with key quotes from King at the beginning and end of each chapter - for a quick summary and overview.
Phillips sets the context in which King operated. This is huge! I don't believe you can't fully understand without immersing in the history, the mindset, the goings on of the time. Phillips doesn't assume the reader is familiar with King. He doesn't assume the reader knows the circumstances of King's time. Phillips pulls the reader in; explaining the leadership trait King embodied; he explains what in King's past helped him to get here. He explains the historical context of what the culture was like, what current events caused the situation, what players were involved and a little on their mindset and background. He points out how even a great man like King made mistakes, how we evaluated his successes and failures, and how he grew and improved throughout.
King's life was short and was lived mainly before I was born - he died at age 39 - and had learned more and accomplished more than many that lived to be twice his age. Being a student of leadership, but someone who knew very little about King, I chose this book to learn about both. It inspired me to read more about King. I am amazed at how he put his principles before even fear of criticism, family threats, and even death. I think the reader will learn a lot about King, his struggles, his faith, his life, his goals, and especially his leadership style. Yet, for burgeoning leaders, it is very insightful. It will make someone think about whether they truly want to be a leader and what sacrifices they are willing to make.
Phillips makes this an easy read - but not an easy one to just race through without reflection.
"True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart." - "The Autobiography Of Martin Luther King, Jr." Edited by Clayborne Carson, Pg. 26
King was most certainly a Christian. He grew up in a Christian home, he went to Seminary, he became a minister and pastored a Church. He spoke of a personal relationship with Jesus. He depended on God for strength during difficult times, he prayed to Jesus, he worshiped Jesus, he preached about Jesus, and led a congregation of Jesus followers. If that's not Christian nothing is. Yet his theology was decidedly liberal. He was embarrassed by his fundamentalist upbringing, especially those who would check their minds in at the door of Church and stomp their feet during the service. He spoke candidly about denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and embracing the liberal view of man. However he was an honest man, who at times questioned his presuppositions. I was impressed how he preached a Gospel that led to action in the present world. Not just a gospel of Sunday pieties.
In story after story King recounted how he was committed to nonviolence because this was the way of Jesus (and Gandhi whom he was later influenced by). He didn't preach hatred of white people, but reconciliation, with an aim to a fully integrated society. If anyone had reason to hate it was King. His home was bombed, his friends homes were bombed, he and his family were verbally abused and threatened, he was stabbed, he was arrested more times than I can count, and was often the victim of gross injustice. Yet in all that he showed the world that he served another Lord, and preached a different Gospel. Violence, only begets more violence. My heart broke for those who suffered during the era of segregation. At times I was almost reduced to tears, reading about the horrors of what mankind has done to each other. Not only that but I finally came to understand a little of what it was like to grow up as a Black Man in a climate of racism, to suffer under such terrible injustice, disrespect and disenfranchisement. Blessed are the peacemakers like Dr King, for they will be called the children of God.
Yet there were times I felt that King's liberalism got the better of him. I felt that King's idea of heaven on earth was simply an integrated society where everyone had equal opportunity to all state services, good jobs, and so on. Yet this idea doesn't go far enough. What about personal repentance and transformation through the power of the Holy Spirit? Can non-violent action really bring this about? Does it treat the symptoms rather than the root cause of the issue? What God's kingdom coming to earth, and us anticipating it in the present, but recognizing it is a future reality? He condemned violent protest, and distanced himself from people like Malcolm X but didn't call on those who had been violent to repent and follow Jesus. Many times he simply rationalized their violence as the understandable reaction of those who had suffered for too long. He often saw the suffering of the negro community as redemptive. But that is to give the community too much power, and a job that only Jesus can truly accomplish. If King meant that through their suffering and weakness, they embodied Jesus' suffering, and pointed people more fully towards Christ, then I have no issues. King's views on poverty and military action were a little naive. Giving away surplus food from the western world to store it in the empty bellies of hungry Indian Children, is a noble thought, but nothing more than a short term solution to a systemic problem. Giving away food like that can drive down the prices of local produce and cause more harm for the local economy than good.
Yet those quibbles aside, this is still a fantastic book. Towards the end it gets a little dry and repetitive, but is very readable. If you only read one book on the Civil rights movement and it's pivotal leader, read this one.
While King did not actually write this book himself (we should remember he was only 39 years old when he was assassinated in 1968), it's so well researched and edited that you believe it came from his own pen. The book goes deep into King's background, and explains how he came to the philosophy that lead him to take the actions that changed American history.
King really believed what he did was for the good of all Americans, not just those of African ancestry. If you read this book, you will find his legacy is exactly that. America is indeed a better place because of his ultimate sacrifice.