Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most prominent and eloquent leaders in America’s civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s. Through teaching his Christian beliefs and Gandhi’s method of nonviolent activism and civil disobedience, he greatly advanced the cause through the organization of powerful protests, marches, and speeches. During his short but meaningful life, he also wrote a number of books that focused on unity, tolerance, and finding the strength to endure in an unjust world.

On the moral obligation of learning, King said, “Education without morals is like a ship without a compass, merely wandering nowhere.” Though much of his unforgettable speeches and writings referenced Christian morality, he was also heavily influenced by Gandhi’s work, Eastern philosophy, Buddhist teachings and Thoreau. And he kept the company of various prominent literary figures of the time – King counted James Baldwin and Langston Hughes as friends, organized protests with the help of Maya Angelou, and had tributes written to his enduring legacy by Alice Walker, Angela Davis and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Read on for a list of the poets, thinkers and dreamers that inspired Martin Luther King Jr. – and complement with The Books Malcolm X Read In PrisonMaya Angelou’s Recommended Reading and The Books Alice Walker Championed.


The Bible (also rec’d by Carl SaganJane GoodallMaya Angelou & Neil deGrasse Tyson)

“We shall overcome because the Bible is right, ‘You shall reap what you sow.'” -MLKJ

Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas

Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (Books I, II, III, IV and V)

Politics by Aristotle (Books I and III)

The City of God by St. Augustine

Poems by William Cullen Bryant

“William Cullen Bryant is right: ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.'”  -MLKJ

The French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle

“We shall overcome, because Carlyle is right, ‘No lie can live forever.'” -MLKJ

The Complete Poetry and Prose by John Donne (also rec’d by Bob Dylan)

“‘No man is an island.’ The tide that fills every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. And [Donne] goes on toward the end to say, ‘any man’s death diminishes me because I’m involved in mankind. Therefore, it’s not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’ Somehow we must come to see that in this pluralistic, interrelated society we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” -MLKJ

The Essential Writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great essayist, said in a lecture in 1871, ‘If a man can write a better book or preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, even if he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.’ This hasn’t always been true — but it will become increasingly true, and so I would urge you to study hard, to burn the midnight oil.” -MLKJ

Collected Works by Mahatma Gandhi (also rec’d by Malcolm X, Marina Abramovic & Gloria Steinem)

Progress and Poverty by Henry George

King quoted from this book during his Poor People’s Campaign, particularly in support of economic aid and a guaranteed basic income for poor communities.

Collected Poems by Langston Hughes (also rec’d by Maya Angelou)

Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving

“The most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that Rip slept twenty years, but that he slept through a revolution. All too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.” -MLKJ

Poems and Other Writings by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“May it not be that the new man the world needs is the non-violent man? Longfellow said: ‘In this world a man must either be an anvil or the hammer.’ We must be hammers shaping a new society rather than anvils molded by the old.” -MLKJ

Complete Poetical Works by James Russell Lowell

“We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: ‘Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne; Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.'” -MLKJ

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

The Republic by Plato (also rec’d by Carl Sagan)

The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

“During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.” -MLKJ

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (also rec’d by Bob Dylan, Ernest Hemingway & Nelson Mandela)

(via ForbesThe Atlanta Black StarThe Autobiography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)


Books by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958)

Strength to Love (1963)

Why We Can’t Wait (1964)

Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967)

The Trumpet of Conscience (1968)

A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (1986)

The Autobiography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1998)

Categories: Activists

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