by Stephen B. Oates
Regardless of the complexities of human behavior and the twists of history, Martin Luther King, Jr. remains one of America's greatest leaders. His unswerving dedication to non-violence in a search for justice, and his respect for and dedication to the best ideals of America, made him a hero for millions. His idealism, erudition and powerful public voice were his strengths. His idealism and humanity were his weaknesses. In a sense, he was a tool of history, exploited for both his strengths and weaknesses. He was swept into the changes of his time and managed to lead African-Americans, across the South and the rest of the nation, to some level of freedom from some of the prejudices of the time. His legacy remains debatable, but this reader would argue his early death was one of the greatest losses of an individual in this country's history.
This is an excellent biography of the man. Stephen Oates follows King from his birth, and rapidly through his education at Crozer and Boston University. By page 50, King is embarking upon his career as a minister in Montgomery, Alabama at almost exactly the same time as the Brown v. Board of Education decision in the Supreme Court orders the desegregation of schools. The timing of History is perfect, and soon King is wrapped up in the nascent Civil Rights movement. His powerful speaking abilities bring him to the forefront, and his remarkable and undying idealism makes him unforgettable to all who hear him. What follows, of course, are the various battles, victories and losses in the Civil Rights movement through the 1950s and 1960s. King's victories leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference include the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act passed by the Johnson administration. He dreams of America as a land of brotherhood, and it never comes to pass in his short lifetime (and has yet to come even close). In the closing years of his life, King is confronted with the impatience of the people he is trying to lead to freedom. A burgeoning black nationalist movement and its often violent tactics was very depressing to the man dedicated to the non-violent ideals put forth by Gandhi. His anti-war stance in the era of Vietnam made him actually quite unpopular across the country. And his attempts at starting a new movement opposing poverty in this country had barely begun when he was gunned down in Memphis in 1968. This book is transparently well written, with the author standing back to present the dizzying pace of King's life. He sticks strictly to the man, giving often sketchy details of the other people who affected King's life and times. But there is plenty of time and space for King, himself, and the book is a real page-turner. We get a detailed life, from birth to death, and a fairly rounded picture of a flawed man with incredible charisma and a brilliant idealism sorely missed in our nation today. Highly recommended.
(Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.)
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