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.