Seven Stories for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Photo: Center for Jewish History

Below are seven stories about (or by) Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., exploring different facets of his life and legacy.

“Alex Haley Interviews Martin Luther King, Jr.” (Alex Haley, Playboy Magazine, January 1965)

King sat down for a series of interviews with the author Alex Haley shortly after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. They were edited and compiled into one interview that ran in the magazine the next year, which—according to The Daily Beast—was the longest interview King ever gave any publication.

“Obituary: Martin Luther King Jr., Leader of Millions in Nonviolent Drive for Racial Justice” (Murray Schumach, The New York Times, April 1968)

King’s obituary, which ran in the New York Times the day after his assassination, acts as a fascinating primary source document from the era, particularly in its discussion of divisions within the civil rights movement, which are often left out of the holiday narrative. Note: As is the case with many older documents, there is wording that some may find objectionable, particularly the Times’ use of the word “negro.” The Columbia Journalism Review recently published a study of how the NYT’s use of racial labels has shifted over the past century and a half, which provides interesting perspective and can be found here.

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (Martin Luther King, Jr., April 1963)

King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is one of the seminal documents of the Civil Rights movement. The letter was originally composed in the margins of a newspaper (the only paper King had at the time) and was published in June 1963 in Liberation, The Christian Century and The New Leader. The next month it was reprinted in The Atlantic as “The Negro Is Your Brother.”

“How Gil Scott-Heron and Stevie Wonder Set Up Martin Luther King Day” (Gil Scott-Heron, The Guardian, January 2012)

An intensely vivid verbal snapshot of Stevie Wonder’s 1981 rally for a national King holiday, which took place at the Washington D.C. monument grounds during Wonder’s “Hotter Than July” tour. The legendary Scott-Heron narrates from the stage, looking out at “50,000 people standing shoulder-to-shoulder across the expanse of the Mall, chanting: ‘Martin Luther King Day, we took a holiday!'”

“Martin Luther King Jr., the Advice Columnist” (Anna Holmes, Washington Post, August 2011)

From September 1957 to December 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. penned a monthly advice column for Ebony magazine that addressed a wide array of subjects, from race relations to interpersonal relationships. Anna Holmes discusses his column in this piece. More of the columns can be found here.

“The Children of Dr. King: Living with the Legacy” (Frank Washington, Atlanta Magazine, January 1985)

Much discussion today (and throughout the year, in classrooms the world over) is made of King’s legacy. This piece addresses a very specific aspect of that legacy: his four children, who lost their father at ages 12, 10, 7 and 5. The 1985 profile looks at their lives as young adults, working “to incorporate their father’s social and spiritual legacy into their own lives.

“Melvin White wants to fix the nation’s Martin Luther King Drives. But can he even fix ours?” (Danny Wicentowski, Riverfront Times, May 2014)

This one isn’t actually about King, not by a long shot. What it does offer is another unique view of his legacy, in this case as seen through the construction (and subsequent decline) of Martin Luther King, Jr. streets and boulevards across America.