The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume VII. To Save the Soul of America. Jan. 1961-Aug. 1962

  • Edited by Clayborne Carson and Tenisha Armstrong
  • University of California Press
  • 752 pp.
  • Reviewed by Ida E. Jones
  • November 21, 2014

The seventh volume of Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers highlights King’s impact on civil rights and John F. Kennedy’s administration.

The monumental life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has impacted American history and culture and, since 1986, the residual effects of his life are still felt every January during the celebration of his national holiday. Oppressed people throughout the world model King’s moralistic code of love to overcome inequity.

Clayborne Carson and Tenisha Armstrong co-edited the seventh volume of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., which charts King’s life via his letters from January 1961 to August 1962.

Carson has dedicated his life’s work to recovering the authentic voice of King, and in this latest volume, he and Armstrong capture King’s life through a multifaceted approach, including a detailed chronology of King’s life, a calendar of documents accompanied with select photographs, and documents resuscitating the dogged determination of the civil rights leader. This volume creates a word picture of the era in which King lived, and the reproductions of handwritten notes also give a textured feel to the intellectual evolution of King.

The annotation of people, places, and events is exhaustive and good roughage for students, scholars, and interested laypersons. When John F. Kennedy took office in 1961 as the youngest elected American president, King had just turned 32, but he “had already risen to national prominence as a result of his leadership role in the Montgomery bus boycott that ended four years earlier. Early in 1957 he had become the founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and subsequently was in great demand as a speaker throughout the nation.”

This book contains information for those unfamiliar with the evolution of the modern Civil Rights Movement. King was a young man propelled into national leadership during the heady times of global history: The Korean War had ended, and Vietnam was slowly creeping into a dangerous geopolitical region. All of this with a young President Kennedy at the helm of a nation divided by race, class, and political ideology.

In this volume, the reader can chart the excitement King has about Kennedy as a potentially potent force for the end of segregation. The two men in the early and middle parts of their adulthood could relate to the conservative preference of older citizens while being in tune with the demands of younger people.

King pleaded with the “impatient youthful activists,” while leaning toward the gradualism of older leaders regarding the dismantling of segregation. The immediacy of the events of Kennedy’s election, the growth of the fledgling SCLC, and the internal strife between the waning “red” inquiries of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) placed Kennedy and King in key places to implement change and reconstruct American society.

Before the 1960 election, King was asked to write an article about the incoming administration and its duty. In it, he stated, “The new Administration has the opportunity to be the first in one hundred years of American history to adopt a radically new approach to the question of civil rights. It must begin, however, with the firm conviction that the principle is no longer in doubt. The day is past for tolerating vicious and inhuman opposition on a subject which determines the lives of [20 million] Americans…History has thrust upon the present Administration an indescribably important destiny — to complete the process of democratization.”

Through this article and his rising notoriety, King tasked the future president with a level of accountability and delivery of true democracy.

The seventh volume of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. contains several examples of how King expressed concern, extended appreciation, and demonstrated veiled indignation with Kennedy’s administration.

The world of the black press provides one example. Percival Leroy Prattis, editor of the Pittsburgh Courier — a paper that highlighted the quest for civil rights throughout the country and established a model within the black press of informative, international, and potent news reporting — celebrated King’s response to Prattis’ frank commentary on the discussion of a proposed Secretary of Integration position.

In King’s response, he stated, “I am deeply grateful to you for your comments concerning my article…However, I am convinced that we have never fully mobilized the forces of our nation behind the integration process. I see the position as Secretary of Integration as one way that the federal government can express its determination to bring an end to the long desolate night of segregation.”

Concurrently, Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, a physician turned journalist, chastised King for remarks made during a fundraising tour. King’s response to his criticism was an apology: “I am very sorry that the impression was given that I made some critical statement of those who were raising questions concerning the Stratton appointment. I made no statement pro or con, privately or publicly…I am sure you realize that one of the perils of being a leader is that of being constantly misrepresented, misquoted and misconstrued.”

King’s interaction with Prattis and Goodlett provides a window into the real-time tightrope he walked within the black community.

The pop-culture icons Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Maya Angelou, and Sammy Davis Jr. are listed among those political, religious, and media personalities. In a letter, Septima Clark writes, “I am writing, not as a representative of Highlander but as one Freedom Fighter to another. I could not sit on this mountain top and not let you know how much taller you have grown in my estimation…We cannot turn back, the future lies bright before us. We have a great job to do. The White Southern must be educated. We, the American Negro must educate him.”

With the seventh volume of King’s papers, Carson and Armstrong take up Clark’s call by continuing to provide an educational moment for all persons interested in truth, justice, history, and knowledge.

Ida E. Jones is assistant curator of manuscripts at the Moorland Spingarn Research Center on the campus of Howard University in Washington, DC.

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