The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume I

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Called to Serve is the first of a proposed fourteen-volume set of the collected works of Martin Luther King, Jr., who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, four years before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. Volume 1 takes King through his twenty-second year, to the eve of his entrance into Boston University’s graduate school.

Called to Serve is also the first fruit of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project, established in 1984 by the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc. In 1986, project director Clayborne Carson, a professor of history at Stanford University, told reporters that he expected the project to produce the first of twelve volumes in 1990, and the last some fifteen years later. Such estimates were only tentative, and on the acknowledgments page Carson admits that “the King Project has experienced conflicts and setbacks.” The eventual production of the first volume is a triumph of engaged scholarship and candid assessment.

The King papers cannot themselves provide a coherent history of the life and thought of the civil rights leader. There is little written material to indicate the shape of King’s extracurricular life. Fewer than twenty pages are given to letters written by King before he entered Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, and material from his college years (about forty pages) and seminary years (almost three hundred pages) largely consists of class writing assignments. Inevitably, then, this first volume focuses on King’s intellectual development, though in a letter to his mother in 1948, after he had entered Crozer Theological Seminary, King does refer to meeting “a fine chick in Phila[delphia]” and says that since a friend “told the members of his church that my family was rich, the girls are running me down. Of course,” King continued to his mother, he had little time to think of them because of the time required for study.

Even so, according to Carson, the amount of material available to the Papers Project forbade publication of every document attributed to King. For example, class notes taken by King are in general not published in the present volume. Instead, the project aims at producing the definitive annotated edition of all of King’s published work and much of his unpublished work, with the inclusion of documents historically significant to the understanding of King such as confidential academic evaluations and, in later volumes, Federal Bureau of Investigation transcripts of King’s telephone conversations. Called to Serve contains a “calendar of documents” list, drawn from various King archives, that includes birth certificates, family photographs, letters, forms, and school essays, from which the editors selected the eighty or so documents preserved in volume 1.

In order to provide some context for readers, Carson and his staff have written interpretive headnotes and extensive footnotes to clarify and elaborate on contemporary references to persons, places, and situations. In addition, a sixteen-page chronology, beginning in 1810 with the birth of Willis Williams, one of King’s maternal great-grandfathers, traces King’s family lineage and brings the story through June 29, 1951, with a note that King’s father, Martin Luther King, Sr., offered the benediction at the annual conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Atlanta.

Most useful of all, however, is a masterful fifty-seven-page introduction that situates King within his family heritage and within the larger struggle in the United States for civil rights. Born in Atlanta in 1929, King was the son of Alberta Christine Williams and Michael King, who by 1934 had changed his name to Martin Luther King. King’s birth certificate, filed in 1934, showed the name “Michael,” which in 1957 was altered to “Martin Luther, Jr.”

Scholars generally recognize three black responses to the continued segregation in the post-Civil War South. Economic self-sufficiency was identified with accommodationist Booker T. Washington; organized resistance, especially in the pursuit of legal redress, was the province of W. E. B. Du Bois and such organizations as the NAACP; and the quest for black nationalism and the “back to Africa” movement found the support of African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, who once told an audience that “Hell is an improvement upon the United States when the Negro is involved.” King’s maternal grandfather, A. D. Williams, was called in 1894 to pastor Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, which had been founded eight years earlier. Williams preached a version of the social gospel that combined the views of Washington and Du Bois in its call for black economic development and the pursuit of civil rights. Williams helped organize the Atlanta branch of the NAACP, which spearheaded...

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