Children's Books on Marting Luther King, Jr. Offer a One-Dimensional View


By Beryle Banfield

The forthcoming national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. will undoubtedly be marked by various classroom projects and school assemblies. Many teachers will ask students to research Dr. King’s life for reports, classroom discussions and the like. What will students learn if they consult the books that are currently available?

To find out, a total of 12 books were reviewed. Of these, nine titles are currently in print; the others were included because they are available at local libraries and thus likely to be referred to by students as well. (See the annotated list of titles at the end of this article.)

It would have been most gratifying to report that the children’s materials on King would lead to a greater appreciation of this great leader—the nature of his leadership, the ways in which he responded to the historic events of his times and how he in turn shaped history. Instead, almost all of the books present students from the earliest grades on with one-dimensional portraits of King and his philosophy.

Essentially, the same facts are presented to all students, whatever the grade level. The books cover King’s birth in Atlanta into middle-class circumstances, his early experiences with racism, his education, his marriage to Coretta Scott, his exposure to Gandhi’s philosophy, his Civil Rights activities and his assassination. Most books focus on King’s use of non-violence, but without fully presenting the sophisticated philosophy that undergird the choice of this particular tactic to bring about social change. Only the level of vocabulary and quantity of detail differentiate materials designed for students of different age levels. The danger exists that as students move through the grades and experience the annual celebrations of King’s birthday, they will become bored with the recycling of information that does nothing to deepen their understanding of King and his times.

More significant than what is included in these books is what is omitted. None of the texts—even those for older children—place King fully in the context of the historical developments of his times or adequately note his relationships to other key figures and organizations of the Civil Rights movement. There is no attempt to examine the process by which racism became institutionalized in the South, nor is there information about the continuing effort of African Americans and their allies to eradicate this evil.

Significantly, the texts do not portray King as a person who was continually growing and whose vision was constantly expanding. Instead, he is presented as a person whose vision and thought remained fixed in time, not moving beyond the celebrated "I Have a Dream" speech of August 28, 1963. Yet the years following 1963 were years of tremendous growth and deepened insight. King was uncompromising in his stand against racism in the United States. He asserted that "for too long the depth of racism in American life has been underestimated.... [It] is important to X-ray our history and reveal the full extent of the disease." King also warned that any attempt to "try to temporize, negotiate small inadequate changes, and prolong the timetable of freedom with the hope that the narcotics of delay will dull the pain of progress would certainly fail.2 These very strong feelings against racism are nowhere discussed in the works reviewed.

Neither do any of the works discuss King’s "Beyond Vietnam" speech, delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. The delivery of this speech was an act of great personal and moral courage, which demonstrated beyond all doubt King’s unswerving commitment to social justice. In this speech, which made him the object of attack by the President of the United States and by other Civil Rights leaders, King used his skills of social analysis to make the connection between the oppression of the poor in the United States and the warm Vietnam. He called for a shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society as a means of conquering the "giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism." None of the materials examined permit students to become acquainted with these views of Dr. King and to develop an appreciation for the strength it took for him to stand up to those who opposed his position on Vietnam.

In addition, students are not given the opportunity to examine the influences that shaped King’s philosophy or their significance. Mohandas K. Gandhi is often mentioned as a key influence in King’s life, but there were others. First, there were his grandfather and his father, both preachers, both pioneers in the Black protest movement of their times. A.D. Williams, his grandfather, was a leader in the Atlanta Branch of the N.A.A.C.P. who organized the Black community to demand equal educational facilities. When a major newspaper carried derogatory articles about African Americans and their activities, A.D. Williams organized a successful boycott that led to the newspaper’s demise. King’s father, Martin Luther King, Sr., led a struggle to secure equal pay for Black teachers in Atlanta. His civil rights activities earned Martin Luther King, Sr. the enmity of the Ku Klux Klan, which made threats against his life.

Thus, from early childhood, Martin Luther King, Jr. had as role models two fearless Black men committed to the struggle against racism. King was also impressed by the ability of his father and grandfather to move huge crowds by their eloquence. By the age of six he had made a conscious decision to learn how to use words as a weapon and as an instrument of persuasion. (Frederick Douglass, the early Black leader of undisputed oratorical gifts, was another boyhood idol.)

Two strong Black women—his grandmother, Mama Williams, and his mother Alberta—played key roles during the formative years of young Martin’s life. Coretta Scott King, his wife, also played an important role, supporting his decision to return to the South and work for the elimination of racism.

Personal experience with Jim Crow laws dictated King’s first career choice:

He originally intended to become a lawyer and play an active role in eliminating racial barriers. He attended Morehouse College of Atlanta, Georgia, an acknowledged training ground for Black leadership. (Both A.D. Williams and Martin Luther King, Sr. had attended Morehouse. The president of Morehouse. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, through his brilliant and socially relevant sermons, influenced King to make the ministry his life’s work, convincing King that through the ministry he could translate his passion for social justice into social action. And it was another Morehouse graduate, Dr. Mordecai Johnson. president of Howard University and also a Baptist preacher, who inspired King to delve further into the teachings of Gandhi.

Finally, there was the influence of the African American church and the traditional deep religious feelings of the African American people. As he developed, King came to see these as a source of strength and moral commitment of Black peoples.

All of the factors cited above need to be addressed in any work on Martin Luther King for grade 4 upward. To do less is to diminish the nature of the man and to do the children of the country a disservice.

When referring to the accompanying list of books examined, the user is cautioned that none of these materials is wholly satisfactory. They need to be supplemented with excerpts from King’s speeches and writings such as Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (Harper & Row, 1958), Why We Can’t Wait (Harper & Row, 1963), "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (included in Why We Can’t Wait) and "Beyond Vietnam" (Clergy and Laity Concerned, 1982).


An Album of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Jeanne A. Rowe. Franklin Watts. 1970, gr. 3—6, op.
A picture album with commentary that stresses King’s philosophy of nonviolence. Excellent photos, including many of the King family. Graphic pictures of the funeral of the four young girls killed in the bombing of the Birmingham Church, the funeral of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, and the use of hoses and police dogs by Birmingham police. The pictures are useful but students should be provided with additional information concerning King’s feelings about racism and other forms of oppression.

Benjamin Franklin/Martin Luther King, Jr. by Stella H. Alico. Pendulum Press (West Haven, CT), 1979, gr. 4—6.
Biographies of both Benjamin Franklin and King are presented in a comic-book format. The King section includes familiar biographical data, but notes King’s stand on Vietnam. Vocabulary exercises are included. There are problems with the True or False Quiz and Discussion. Some questions seem to present King as a leader only of Black people: e.g., "What do you think is the greatest thing Dr. King did for Black people? Give reasons for your answer. There is also the implication that the North was free of racism; e.g., "Why do you think white people in the South seemed slower than Northerners, to accept Black people as equals?" Not recommended.

In Search of Peace The Story of Four Americans Who Won the Nobel Peace Prize by Roberta Strauss Feyerlicht. Julian Messner, 1970, gr. 5.
A simple biography stressing Gandhi’s influence on King and outlining his Civil Rights activities from the Montgomery Bus Boycott through the "I Have a Dream" speech. Inadequate for use with students of this grade level.

The Life and Death of Martin Luther King by James Haskins. Lothrop, Lee, Shepard, 1977, gr. 8—12.
Pedestrian in style, this book presents familiar biographical data with no new insights. There is some detailed discussion of the harassment of King and the conspiracy- theory of King’s assassination. Useful but should be supplemented with additional material.

Martin Luther King. Jr. by Beth P. Wilson, illustrated by Floyd Sewell. Putnam's, 1971, gr. 2–4, o.p.
A nicely written biography which ends with the assassination of Dr. King. Good for younger readers as an introduction to King’s life.

Martin Luther King by Rae Bains, Illustrated by Hal French. Troll Associates, 1985, gr. 2–3.
A simple biography which details the segregated society into which Martin Luther King, Jr. was born, but implies that the North was free of racism. Emphasizes influence of Thoreau and Gandhi on King. The text does not make it clear that King is no longer alive. Unsuitable for this age group, which requires a presentation of greater depth.

Martin Luther King, Jr. by Jacqueline Harris. Franklin Watts, 1983, gr. 7–up.
A stilted presentation of the facts of Martin Luther King’s life. King’s stand on the Vietnam War is mentioned. The final chapter raises issues that still have to be dealt with by African Americans and poor people and discusses efforts to dismantle Civil Rights gains. Adequate, but should be supplemented by examples of King’s writings.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Man to Remember by Patricia McKissack. Children’s Press, 1984, gr. 6–up.
This is the most imaginative of the books reviewed. The Introduction begins with a pertinent quote from "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," and each chapter is prefaced by a relevant poem by a Black poet, a quote from King’s speeches or, in one instance, a quote from an unidentified Black grandmother who walked during the Montgomery boycott. This book humanizes King more than the others and does not dodge the issue of racism. All of the influences on King—his strong father and grandfather, his strong mother and grandmother, Morehouse College and the works of Frederick Douglass—are presented. McKisack also identifies other Civil Right workers and such organizations as CORE and SNCC. A serious fault however, is the omission of Ella Baker and her role, in the development of SNCC.

Martin Luther King, The Man Who Climbed the Mountain by Gary Paulsen and Dan Theis. Raintree (distributed by Children’s Press), 1976, gr. 6, o.p.
The book begins with a dramatic account of King’s assassination and then moves on to place events of King’s life in historical perspective. The origin of discriminatory laws is discussed, and King’s personal experiences with racism are described. King’s key Civil Rights activities are presented.

Martin Luther King: The Peaceful Warrior by Ed Clayton, illustrated by David Hodges. Prentice-Hall (Archway Paperback), 1968, gr. 6–up.
The book’s title signals the focus of the presentation. This biography presents essential facts of King’s life but fails to properly assess the March on Washington and its aftermath. The book Includes the text of "I Have a Dream" and the words of "We Shall Overcome"; needs to be supplemented with additional readings on the Movement

Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Story of a Dream by Judith Behrens, illustrated by Anne Siberell. Children’s Press, 1979, gr. 3–4.

1Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr., Harper & Row, 1968, p. 130.
2Why We Can’t Wait, p. 30.