Although the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been the subject of several award-winning biographies, the religious journey of the great civil rights leader, who would have turned 75 on January 15, has remained largely unexplored. As Stewart Burns now demonstrates in To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Sacred Mission to Save America, King experienced profound spiritual growth during the dozen years he was at the forefront of the crusade for equal rights. Despite being an ordained minister, Burns writes, King maintained an intellectual relationship with God and never underwent a distinct moment of conversion until he, as a young pastor of 26, became active in the struggle against segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, in the mid-1950s. Thereafter, in the author's words, King believed "he was called by God to lead his people to a second emancipation." Yet, Burns argues, King was a reluctant messiah tormented by feelings of unworthiness and "monumental" guilt. The civil rights leader believed that he did not merit the extravagant praise heaped on him; other people, often unknown and unsung, were more deserving. In 1967 and 1968, the final years of his life, King grieved that as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize he had not spoken out earlier to condemn the war in Vietnam, which he labeled "an enemy of the poor." Burns further speculates that the Baptist minister increasingly felt "searing guilt" brought on by widespread rumors of his alleged marital infidelity.

Burns, a former editor of the King papers, offers a vivid portrait of the modern civil rights movement. With the skill of a novelist, he conveys the drama of the Montgomery bus boycott, the bombings of black churches, the sit-ins at lunch counters and the marches for civil rights and voting rights legislation. Particularly insightful is his discussion of King's uncertain relationship with John and Robert Kennedy, exemplified by the Kennedy family's failure to invite King to the slain president's funeral mass. Thoroughly researched and brilliantly argued, this volume is certain to become a standard source on the late civil rights leader and his time. Dr. Thomas Appleton is professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University.

comments powered by Disqus