Noted Civil Rights Scholar Authors Acclaimed Biography of MLK
By Lori Wright, Media Relations
January 16, 2008
Noted civil rights scholar Harvard Sitkoff, a professor of history at
UNH, has authored a new biography on Martin Luther King Jr. that has been
called the finest brief biography of the civil rights leader.
“King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop” was published Jan. 3
by Hill and Wang. Columbia University’s Eric Foner says, “Drawing
on his expertise in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, Harvard Sitkoff
has produced the finest brief biography of Martin Luther King Jr.”
It is a book, according to Sitkoff, that he was destined to write.
“Martin Luther King Jr. certainly had a far greater impact on my
life than any other public figure, and there is no one I more admired than
King. I well remember the excitement I felt as a boy reading accounts of
the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Because of that, I got involved in the movement
as a college student, and then went South briefly to march and picket and
take part in the movement,” Sitkoff says.
“As a young adult, nothing exhilarated me more than King saying
hello to me and shaking my hand at a civil rights demonstration in Virginia
in 1962. And I’ll never forget the extraordinary jumble of emotions
and thoughts that went through me as I stood in the rain on an Atlanta
street as his casket went by,” he says.
Unlike many notable, yet lengthy books about King, the 234-page “King:
Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop” is written for readers looking for
a relatively short book about the civil rights leader.
“I wanted to bring King alive for today’s reading public,
especially for those who never knew him. I wanted to breathe life back
into the real, the true, King -- not the distorted King of myth, still
amiably dreaming of a colorblind society and of little else -- but, rather,
the King that the FBI accused of being ‘the most dangerous Negro
in the country,’ the King who had become a pariah to most of those
in power, the King no longer admired by the great majority of his countrymen
at the time of his assassination,” Sitkoff says.
In “King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop,” readers will learn
about King’s criticism of American capitalism and his demands to
end economic injustice. They will discover how King identified with nonwhite
struggles worldwide against colonialism and imperialism, and why he opposed
the Vietnam War before it was acceptable to do so. And they will understand
why King supported striking Memphis sanitation workers and why he wanted
to lead the nation’s poorest citizens, regardless of race, in a nonviolent
assault on Washington until the nation and its government paid heed to
One of the biography’s major themes is the centrality of King’s
religion to his political and social activism. At heart, he identified
himself as a Baptist preacher, according to Sitkoff, and the keys to his
greatness -- his courage, his oratorical skill, his moral vision -- were
rooted in the African American Christian folk religion.
The book, however, does not gloss over King’s flaws and weaknesses. “King
was a very fallible human being, not a saint. As a leader, he failed as
often as he succeeded,” Sitkoff says.
The biography also emphasizes that King and the Civil Rights Movement
were not synonymous – much of what happened in the movement was neither
initiated nor led by King.
“And yet, it is necessary to understand King’s critical role
in the movement. He was its preeminent spokesperson, leader, and symbol.
Accordingly, although on the stage of public affairs for barely a decade
and never holding public office, King shaped more sweeping changes in habits
of thought and action than any other figure of his century,” Sitkoff