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Cover image for King : pilgrimage to the mountaintop
Title:
King : pilgrimage to the mountaintop
ISBN:
9780809095162
Edition:
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Hill and Wang, 2008.
Physical Description:
xv, 270 p. ; 24 cm.
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Summary

Summary

A Stunning Reappraisal of King and His Increased Relevance   Might Martin Luther King Jr.'s greatest accomplishments have been ahead of him? His murder in April 1968 did far more than cut tragically short the life of one of America's most remarkable civil rights leaders. In this concise biography, Harvard Sitkoff presents a stunningly relevant King. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, King's 1963 soul-stirring address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the 1965 history-altering Selma march are all recounted. But these are not treated as predetermined high points in a life celebrated for its role in a civil rights struggle too many Americans have quickly relegated to the past. Carefully presented alongside King's successes are his failures--as an organizer in Albany, Georgia, and St. Augustine, Florida; as a leader of ever more strident activists; as a husband. Together, high and low points are interwoven to capture King's lifelong struggle, through disappointment and epiphany, with his own injunction: "Let us be Christian in all our actions." By telling King's life as one on the verge of reaching its fullest fulfillment, Sitkoff powerfully shows where King's faith and activism were leading him--to a direct confrontation with a president over an immoral war and with an America blind to its complicity in economic injustice.


Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Historian Sitkoff covers the major points in the time line of King's life and the Civil Rights movement-from the Montgomery bus boycott to the March on Washington, his anti-Vietnam War activism and assassination in 1968-but this brief, rudimentary volume will enlighten only the most novice student of Civil Rights history. The author passes through major moments in an informal tone that borders on the flippant ("King the gentle Jesus had bested [Birmingham police commissioner Eugene "Bull"] Connor the sadistic Satan"). Sitkoff (The Enduring Vision, co-editor) attends to the civil rights leader's flaws as well as his accomplishments, noting King's early plagiarism and making frequent reference to his sexual dalliances ("King flitted from one thinker to another at almost the same rate as he wrecked young women"). Though Sitkoff includes excerpts from King's books and speeches (jazzed up with audience responses, e.g., "All right, yessir!"), neophytes are better served by David J. Garrow's Pulitzer Prize-winning Bearing the Cross, which Sitkoff acknowledges in his ample and gracious "Bibliographic Essay." (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Kirkus Review

Concise biography of the famed civil-rights leader. Sitkoff (History/Univ. of New Hampshire; The Struggle for Black Equality, 1945-1992, 1993, etc.) covers familiar ground in an easy-to-read book that traces the life of Martin Luther King Jr. from his 1929 birth in segregated Atlanta to his assassination in 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Setting King against the backdrop of the already well-documented racial conflicts of his times, the author chronicles in unaffected prose the events that garnered the Baptist minister the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and made him a target of U.S. government-sanctioned surveillance and attacks. (Sitkoff notes that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover routinely referred to King as "burrhead," among other invectives.) The text revisits the highlights: the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that catapulted King to national attention; the 1963 March on Washington at which he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech; the Birmingham church bombing that rocked King's faith in nonviolent protest; and finally, the political pressures that put him in the firing line of gunman James Earl Ray. In sure-to-be-contentious passages about King's string of extramarital affairs, Sitkoff cites a long tradition of infidelity among black preachers. Regrettably, the author offers no views on the conspiracy theories that continue to swirl around Ray, who later recanted his guilty plea and died in prison in 1998. The recent deaths of King's daughter Yolanda and wife Coretta--whose 1969 memoir My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr. merits a wider readership--are likely to prompt franker, more compelling books than this competent summary of previous scholarship. A lengthy bibliographical essay cites as references scores of King-related works, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies by Taylor Branch and David Garrow. Serviceable but undistinguished fare for those disinclined to read more substantial texts. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Choice Review

Drawing upon published writings, sermons, and the relevant scholarly literature, Sitkoff (Univ. of New Hampshire) offers readers a fine, concise biography of Martin Luther King Jr. The author begins by saying he seeks to bring to life the King who changed the habits of thought and action more than any other American of his century. In this task, Sitkoff is successful. He uncovers King's creative fusing of Gandhian nonviolence and the Christian Social Gospel, and notes King's mostly quiet belief in democratic socialism about which he became more outspoken in his last months. The book illuminates the numerous turning points marking King's career--the Montgomery boycott as well as Albany, Birmingham, Selma, Chicago, and his opposition to the Vietnam War that led him to the Poor Peoples March. Dr. King emerges as an unswerving man of principle, yet flawed and made vulnerable by his personal shortcomings. He sometimes equivocated, as in the case of the march from Selma (he held back from defying a federal injunction), but in the end, his role was central to adoption of the Voting Rights Act. Sitkoff effectively challenges the portrait of King as a leader who did not go beyond his nonviolence; rather, he fused nonviolence with mass action. A compelling introduction to King's life and the great movements of the 1960s. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. H. Shapiro emeritus, University of Cincinnati


Excerpts

Excerpts

Preface Martin Luther King, Jr., is as relevant today as in the 1960s, perhaps more so. That is the reason for King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop. It brings to life the King who, in the face of great odds, altered American habits of thought and action more than any other figure of his century, and made the United States far more just, democratic, and egalitarian. King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop reminds us of why he moved the conscience of a generation, of how he changed hearts. Moreover, in a world of war, poverty, and murderous racial and religious hatreds, it emphasizes King's unfulfilled radical agenda. This portrayal of Martin Luther King is not the King generally celebrated today. His radicalism, not just in the last year of his life but throughout much of his career, has been airbrushed out of the historical picture. As C. Vann Woodward famously wrote: "The twilight zone that lies between memory and written history is one of the favorite breeding places of mythology." Nowhere is this truer than in contemporary celebrations of King's birthday that portray him as a moderate, respectable ally of presidents and a facile spokesperson for the American Dream. The same government that once reviled him, viewing him as "dangerous" and a "pariah" for his alleged ties to Communists and his preaching radical liberation theology, now holds him up as a model of peaceful, incremental change. Because of his goodness, so the story goes, whites recognized the errors of their ways and made all the necessary changes in race relations to rectify the nation's shameful past. As such, King is the nice man who helped solve the problems of the past, rather than someone who challenges us to solve the problems of our present injustices and inequities. His canonization has turned him into a historical relic no longer relevant. Ignored is his lifelong commitment to social justice, his abhorrence of war and militarism, his insistence on ending every vestige of colonialism and imperialism, and his crusade to end poverty and privation. Ignored is his claim that the American civil rights movement was but one aspect of an international human rights revolution against "political domination and economic exploitation." The endless replaying of his "I Have a Dream" speech has drowned out King's dream of a just society based on "a radical redistribution of economic and political power." It has drowned out what he reiterated in 1965: "I still have a dream that one day all of God's children will have food and clothing and material well-being for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, and freedom for their spirits." And it disregards the King who, as early as the 1950s, called for world disarmament, an end to apartheid in South Africa, a global war on poverty, and "special treatment" to assist African-Americans to overcome historic racism. Although politicians holding forth on King Day fail to recall this, or his strident condemnations of America's war in Vietnam and his unequivocal demands for "basic structural changes in the architecture of American society," King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop emphasizes them and sees them rooted in his long-held belief in religiously inspired democratic socialism and the Christian Social Gospel tradition. Like Woodward, I hope to illuminate why, in sharp contrast to the funeral of Coretta Scott King in 2006, attended by the president of the United States and three ex-presidents, neither President Lyndon Johnson nor the two ex-presidents then alive bothered with the funeral rites for Martin Luther King, Jr. As many Americans hated King as loved him, and by 1968 most had turned their backs on him. They disapproved of his aims and tactics. A vast majority condemned his forceful criticism of America's role in the Vietnam War and of how that conflict caused domestic needs to be downplayed or dismissed. Even more decried his involvement in an unruly strike by garbage workers, and considered unnecessarily provocative and reckless his plan to bring an army of the dispossessed to Washington to wage a nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience against all those institutions that denied dignity and opportunity and hope to the downtrodden. The King often shunned by those in power and despised by many in the population is the King I have depicted. King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop is based on the latest scholarship, and makes great use of the publication of The Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers by the University of California Press, as well as writings by and about others involved with King. One cannot write a synthesis such as this without relying heavily on the extraordinary work of scholars, journalists, and movement participants. Such works as Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind by John J. Ansbro, Going Down Jericho Road by Michael J. Honey, and David J. Garrow's Bearing the Cross have set the standard for scholarship on King. They remain unsurpassed in their depth of research and quality of analysis. But I have chosen to write neither another monograph by an academic for academics nor another biographical tome that too few have time enough to read. Instead, I have sought to craft a brief yet stirring narrative for a twenty-first-century readership that illustrates the historical forces that shaped King, and how he, in turn, changed American society. In addition to King's radicalism, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop highlights both his awesome achievements and failures; it describes the American-style apartheid of the South that King was born into and would do so much to overturn; it explains his foibles, and why he sometimes acted more like a politician than a preacher; it examines the legendary black preaching tradition, the source of King's oratorical power, and the importance of it to the successful drive to end racial segregation and disenfranchisement; it dramatizes the interplay between King and the movement for racial justice, and how that dynamic changed both King and the movement; it documents FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover's effort to destroy King and the movement by harassment and persecution; and it depicts King both making history and being made by history. Most of all, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop emphasizes the centrality of King's faith to his political and social activism. At heart a clergyman and Baptist preacher, King experienced the movement as a sacred mission. His goals and strategies were rooted in the African-American Christian folk religion--the religion of his slave forebears. The black church sustained King's Social Gospel dream, and gave him the courage, the oratorical skills, and the spiritual vision to change the course of American and world history. Coupling his religious ideas with the nation's core civic values enabled him, at one and the same time, to inspire and energize black Americans to struggle for their rights, and to sway white Americans to understand and support that endeavor. However overwrought or sometimes paralyzed by fear he became, King's bibical faith enabled him to keep his eyes on the prize, to put righteousness before expediency, despite the beatings, jailings, inner turmoil, and constant threats of assassination. At the same time, I also stress King's fallibility. This is not a sanitized biography. I have tried to acknowledge and to explain his flaws and weaknesses. Martin Luther King, Jr., was not a saint. He was an imperfect man with many of the failings of other mere mortals. Certainly he should have been a better husband and father, should have been a more honest scholar. Hardly infallible, frequently indecisive and irresolute, he compromised too much and at times acted timidly. And he failed as often as he succeeded. Many, I fear, will find my account of the murder of King to be too abrupt. That more surely needs to be explained, I wholeheartedly agree. But far too much still remains unclear and unknown about the assassination. Its aftermath, moreover, requires a book at least as long as this one. Finally, I have tried to place King in the context of the movement for freedom and for justice and for equality that he helped make and that made him. As Vincent Harding reminds us, King simultaneously nurtured and drew sustenance from, shaped and was shaped by that movement. The interplay between them changed both, so King never stood still for long. He moved with history, going from merely asking for more courteous trreatment of blacks on the Montgomery buses to struggling for the complete abolition of the Jim Crow system, to transforming American society on behalf of its poorest, most neglected peoples of all races. I think it important to underline that King and the movement were not synonymous, that many civil rights campaigns were neither initiated nor led by King, and that success in the black freedom struggle often depended far more on the extraordinary efforts of the ordinary people who walked the streets of Montgomery and filled the jails of Birmingham than it did on the charisma of those at the top. At the same time, I acknowledge that King was the movement's preeminent spokesperson, symbol, and leader. He was the right man, with the right talents, at the right time. The eloquent conscience of his generation, King, as stated in the citation for his posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, "made our nation stronger because he made it better." Yet his dreams of true brotherhood, of a world without war, of "a world in which men no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes," remain dreams. And the lessons of his life, that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," that "freedom is a constant struggle," remain to be learned. Excerpted from King by Harvard Sitkoff. Copyright (c) 2008 by Harvard Sitkoff. Published in December 2007 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. Excerpted from King by Harvard Sitkoff All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.


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