To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Battle for the American Soul

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More than a biography, To the Mountaintop is the history of a turbulent epoch that changed the course of American and world history. Moral warrior and nonviolent apostle; man of God rocked by fury, fear, and guilt; rational thinker driven by emotional and spiritual truth -- Martin Luther King Jr. struggled to reconcile these divisions in his soul. Here is an intimate narrative of his intellectual and spiritual journey from cautious liberal, to reluctant radical, to righteous revolutionary. Stewart Burns draws not...
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More than a biography, To the Mountaintop is the history of a turbulent epoch that changed the course of American and world history. Moral warrior and nonviolent apostle; man of God rocked by fury, fear, and guilt; rational thinker driven by emotional and spiritual truth -- Martin Luther King Jr. struggled to reconcile these divisions in his soul. Here is an intimate narrative of his intellectual and spiritual journey from cautious liberal, to reluctant radical, to righteous revolutionary. Stewart Burns draws not only on King's speeches, letters, writings, and well-reported strategizing and activities, but also on previously underutilized oral histories of key meetings and events, which present a dramatic account of King and the movement in the crucial years from 1955 to 1968. In a striking departure from earlier books on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, Burns focuses on King's biblical faith and spiritual vision as fundamental to his political leadership and shows how these threads wove together a "single garment of destiny," making King the most important social prophet of the twentieth century. King is not portrayed as a lone exalted hero, but as the heart of a fabric of principled leadership that stretched from his closest colleagues to the movement's foot soldiers on the streets. This book stresses his shaping by other leaders -- heroic figures such as Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, James Bevel, Bob Moses, and Marian Wright Edelman -- and his conflicted relationships with John and Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. To the Mountaintop is uniquely powerful in presenting actual conversations between King and others, and in showing how King's public words often revealed his private torment. Burns provides a uniquely realist portrait of King and the civil rights movement by revealing the vital but neglected religious character of the story, and by demonstrating how King profoundly experienced the movement as a sacred mission following a path of
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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Martin Luther King's life story is one that Americans will have to retell every generation, as they retell those of Jefferson and Lincoln. Stewart Burns, a former editor at the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford, has spent the last 12 years distilling the vast documentary record of King's career. He has produced the perfect biography for the age of Sept. 11: one that highlights the terrifying uncertainties of a struggle against evil and puts self-sacrifice at the center of the story. — David L. Chappell
Publishers Weekly
Drawing on oral histories, documents and major world events, this intimate new biography chronicles the civil rights leader's struggles with faith and leadership from his days as a novice minister until his assassination in 1968. Burns, the former editor of the King Papers Project at Stanford, asserts that King often saw himself as an unworthy Moses and increasingly drew upon his biblical faith to shape his role in the nonviolence movement. Burns also examines the influence of notable figures on King's life, from Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X to Gandhi and Robert F. Kennedy. Without ever resorting to deification or criticism, he quotes from King's public conversations and speeches, then presents the man's private doubts on everything from LBJ's war against poverty to the Nation of Islam movement, many of which are culled from interviews with Coretta Scott King, Rustin and other trusted advisers. Pivotal events like the Montgomery bus boycott, the Vietnam War and the March on Washington are brought alive through narratives that show their impact on King's path of righteousness. Burns's ear for dialogue and attention to details-the shiny green Chevy King's parents bought him upon graduation from divinity school, the arduous shaving process often blamed for his tardiness-help keep the book from spiraling into dry textbook formula. It's a thought-provoking examination of the inner struggles of a widely covered public figure, and its thorough research and insights should help it stand out among the slew of other King biographies on the shelves. (Jan. 15) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Martin Luther King Jr. has had a number of fine biographers, so any new history of King and the Civil Rights Movement needs to be different from what has come before. Burns attempts to provide something new by emphasizing the centrality of King's faith and his role within the black church. In this he partly succeeds, offering glimpses of King's lifelong spiritual struggle to reconcile dualities of strength and weakness, of goodness and sin, within himself and within the movement he led. Burns, a coeditor of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., also edited Daybreak of Freedom, a documentary history of the Montgomery bus boycott. King of all subjects should summon a measure of poetry from a biographer, but this narrative is seldom visited by grace, perhaps hampered by Burns's familiarity with the source materials, from which he quotes liberally. The book will be published to coincide with the 75th anniversary of King's birth on January 15. For libraries that own fine works about King by Branch, Garrow, Oates, and others, this is an optional choice.-Robert F. Nardini, Chichester, NH Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641612909
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/23/2003
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Stewart Burns edited the third volume of the King Papers, Birth of a New Age, and has written the only published history of the Montgomery bus boycott, Daybreak of Freedom. He was a consultant on the award-winning HBO dramatic film Boycott, based on his book. Previously at Stanford University, he now teaches at College of the Redwoods in northern California.

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Table of Contents

Bk. 1 A Mighty Stream: (1955-1957) 1
Bk. 2 Middle Passage: (1963-1966) 157
Bk. 3 Crossing to Jerusalem: (1967-1968) 295
Conclusion: Building the Beloved Community 457
Notes 459
Acknowledgments 481
Index 483
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First Chapter

To the Mountaintop
Martin Luther King Jr.'s Sacred Mission to Save America: 1955-1968

Chapter One

First Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama
January 30, 1956

"Onward Christian soldiers," the spirited assembly belted out, "marching as to war." The hymn had been written to inspire Union forces during the Civil War. Prayer followed, then another hymn, "Plant My Feet on Higher Ground." A short, somber minister rose to the pulpit for that evening's pep talk.

"Some of our good white citizens told me today that the relationships between white and colored used to be good," he said softly, "that the whites have never let us down and that the outsiders came in and upset this relationship. But I want you to know," his voice building volume, "that if M. L. King had never been born, this movement would have taken place. I just happened to be here.

"There comes a time," his words now a resonating shout, "when time itself is ready for change. That time has come in Montgomery and I had nothing to do with it.

"Our opponents -- I hate to think of our governmental officers as opponents, but they are -- have tried all sorts of things to break us, but we still hold steadfast. Their first strategy was to negotiate into a compromise and that failed. Secondly, they tried to conquer by dividing and that failed. Now they are trying to intimidate us by a get-tough policy and that's going to fail too, because a man's language is courage when his back is against the wall." The assembly erupted in thunderclaps.

"When we are right, we don't mind going to jail!" More ear-splitting applause. "If all I have to pay is going to jail a few times and getting about twenty threatening phone calls a day, I think that is a very small price to pay for what we are fighting for. We are a chain. We are linked together, and I cannot be what I ought to be unless you are what you ought to be." More thunderous clapping as he sat down.

Following him at the pulpit was Solomon S. Seay, former head of the national African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church.

"You know," Rev. Seay started out, "if a man doesn't want to sit besides me because I'm dirty, that's my fault. If he doesn't want to sit besides me because I'm loud, that's my fault too, but if he doesn't want to sit besides me because I'm black, that's not my fault because God made me black and my white brother is discriminating against God and His will. But even though they are, we must love them. We must love Mr. Sellers and Mr. Gayle for God said that we must love our enemies as ourselves. Let's not hate them, for with love in our hearts and God on our side, there are no forces in hell or on earth that can mow us down.

"I had a book which was so interesting," he continued, "that I gave it to the city officials to read. It's a book on great powers, the stories of men who ruled and conquered by force only to lose. Men like Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Hitler were discussed, men who lived by the sword. Their empires are no longer, but have perished.

"But there was a man who taught that love and faith could move mountains and more mountains. And unto this day that empire which was built by a man who said while dying on the cross, 'Forgive them O Lord, for they know not what they do.' That is the empire of Jesus Christ! He was asking forgiveness for the men who crucified him, drove nails through his hands and put thorns on his head. So we forgive Sellers and Gayle, but we do not give up."

Back at the King parsonage on South Jackson Street, a small one-story clapboard house, Coretta Scott King was watching television, still a novelty, in the front parlor, a church friend keeping her company. She heard the thud of something landing on the concrete porch and foot-steps scurrying away. Alert to what it might be, she grabbed her friend and they dashed to the back of the house, where tiny, two-month-old Yolanda was sleeping in her crib. Then came the explosion, the loudest noise she had ever heard. She held her screaming friend. The baby cried. The dynamite sticks had blown a hole in the concrete floor, wrecked porch columns and the front wall, and smashed several windows. It would have injured anyone sitting in the parlor. It would likely have killed Coretta King had she looked out the window to investigate the thud.

Over at First Baptist on the other side of the statehouse, Rev. King was supervising the collection. A member of his church walked briskly down the aisle and whispered to Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King's closest friend, whose church this was. Out of the corner of his eye King saw ministers conferring urgently. Agitated, he turned to Abernathy and asked what the hell was going on.

"Your house has been bombed."

He asked about his wife and baby.

"We are checking on that now."

He returned to the pulpit, told the people what happened. Several shouted out in shock and alarm. A few women screamed. King urged calm, which he somehow embodied, advising them to go home directly and hold to nonviolent principles.

"Let us keep moving," he said firmly but wearily, "with the faith that what we are doing is right, and with the even greater faith that God is with us in the struggle."

Staring straight ahead, he marched out of the church and drove home. The parsonage was surrounded by a furious sea of several hundred black people, who "came to do battle," Coretta King recalled. New waves were arriving every minute. Densely packed, they closed in around the house ...

To the Mountaintop
Martin Luther King Jr.'s Sacred Mission to Save America: 1955-1968
. Copyright © by Stewart Burns. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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