As one of the most prominent and eloquent leaders of America’s civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, Martin Luther King Jr. advanced the cause through nonviolent activism and civil disobedience, organizing powerful protests, marches, and speeches that galvanized a generation. During his short but meaningful life – cut short at 39 by an assassin’s bullet – he also wrote several enduring books on unity, tolerance, and finding strength 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 most popular output referenced Christian morality, he was also heavily influenced by Gandhi’s work, Eastern philosophy, Buddhist teachings, and the writings of Thoreau. He also kept close relationships with prominent Black 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 legacy by Alice Walker, Angela Davis and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Read on for a selection of the poets, thinkers and dreamers that inspired Martin Luther King Jr. – and complement with the book lists of Alice Walker, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, and The Black Panther Party.
“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
“‘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
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.
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 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
Books by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Strength to Love (1963)
Why We Can’t Wait (1964)
The Trumpet of Conscience (1968)