Reflecting on history, economist John Galbraith once wrote, “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time.” That can certainly be said of Martin Luther King, Jr., a giant in the pantheon of great American leaders. Building on Galbraith’s observation, it can be argued that a truly great leader continues to speak to generations that transcend his own generation — and that is also certainly true of King. His powerful and poetic eloquence have reached and inspired entirely new generations; his words continue to resonate with people of every race, every nationality because they address profound universal truths about humanity.
And like many great leaders of history, King was standing on the shoulders of another giant, another great leader of men who changed the world — Mahatma Gandhi. In her insightful introduction to The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King discusses her husband’s great legacy in its proper philosophical context: “Martin always had a deep commitment to helping his fellow human beings. He told me that the turning point in his thinking about how to reconcile Christian pacifism with getting things done came while he was at the seminary, when he learned about the revered Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi. Martin later wrote… ‘Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective force on a large scale… It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for so many months.'”
Like the teachings of Gandhi that continue to provide undiminished enlightenment in the modern world, the words of Martin Luther King continue to speak to us — reminding of us of our common humanity and challenging us to be better human beings by helping one another; in the unambiguous words of the Dalai Lama: “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” In honor of the 50th anniversary of King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, Bookshelf presents the best books on the ageless words and wisdom of Martin Luther King:
The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. selected and with an Introduction by Coretta Scott King, Newmarket Press (1984)
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Companion selected by Coretta Scott King, St. Martins Press (1993)
Essential African American Wisdom edited by Carol Kelly-Gangi, Fall River Press (2009)
A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by James Washington, HarperOne (2003)