King Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop

Harvard Sitkoff

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year

Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder in April 1968 did far more than cut tragically short the life of one of America's most remarkable civil rights leaders. Might his greatest accomplishments have been ahead of him? In this concise biography, Harvard Sitkoff presents a stunningly relevant King. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, King's 1963 soul-stirring address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the 1965 history-altering Selma march are all recounted.

But these are not treated as predetermined high points in a life celebrated for its role in a civil rights struggle too many Americans have quickly relegated to the past. Carefully presented alongside King's successes are his failures-as an organizer in Albany, Georgia, and St. Augustine, Florida; as a leader of ever more strident activists; as a husband. Together, high and low points are interwoven to capture King's lifelong struggle, through disappointment and epiphany, with his own injunction: "Let us be Christian in all our actions." By telling King's life as one on the verge of reaching its fullest fulfillment, Sitkoff powerfully shows where King's faith and activism were leading him-to a direct confrontation with a president over an immoral war and with an America blind to its complicity in economic injustice.


Praise for King

"A terse account of King's life and legacy, which provides a lucid, nuanced account of the man and his times for readers put off by 1,000-page epics. Drawing on the research of scholars such as Branch and Garrow, Sitkoff sets King's public virtues-his genius for oratory and mass motivation, his often canny political sense-against personal vices well known and less so-his womanizing, his sometime prevarication as a leader. In so doing, Sitkoff provides a vivid portrait that deserves to be widely read, not only as the standard short King biography but also as an incisive essay on his significance today. Foregrounding King's primary vocation as a Christian and a preacher, Sitkoff traces the development of King's moral philosophy: from his birth into Atlanta's God-fearing black bourgeoisie, where he was early implanted with the sense of 'somebodyness' that he fought later to instill in others; through his decision to study for the pulpit ('My father is a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher,' he'd say, later adding, 'so I didn't have much choice.'); to his discovery of the social gospel that would form the core of his faith. . . . Sitkoff tells this story deftly . . . King's greatness, as Sitkoff's fine book eloquently affirms, lay in the dedicated talent with which he pursued ideals that no earthly country has yet obtained. That he at times framed his appeal in the words of the U.S. Constitution is testament to the principles put down there. But it is his moral conscience-antithetical to jingoism and transcendent of any one nation's aims-for which King most deserves to be celebrated today. 'Injustice anywhere,' he warned time and again before he was slain in April 1968, 'is a threat to justice everywhere.' This dictum, like the man who uttered it, still resounds."-Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, San Francisco Chronicle

"A succinct and highly readable re-examination of King's life."-Michael Taylor, The Times-Dispatch (Richmond)

"Writing with skill and imagination, Sitkoff reminds the reader that the central value for which King lived and died was his idea of community . . . King is clearly the best short biography we have of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Its lucid and accessible style makes this text appealing far beyond a limited community of experts. It's a must-read for all who have an interest in King's life and legacy."-Noel Leo Erskine, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Determined to broaden the lens through which people-and tomorrow's history-view the man, Sitkoff wrote King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop. The book's driven by the often uncelebrated, radical side of King, and it stressed King's dream has yet to be fully realized. It doesn't only focus on King's successes, but also his failures, both personally and as a leader. Over 234 pages, the book takes readers from King's birth in his parent's home in Georgia on Jan. 15, 1928, to his role in the desegregation movement and to his assassination-40 years ago today-on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, outside room 306, in Memphis . . . Sitkoff, who began writing the Pilgrimage about five years ago, agreed the presidential nomination battle between Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton poses an interesting backdrop for his book . . . Drawn from four decades of teaching King, his personal connections to the man and a plethora of scholarly material, the work has been praised for its accessibility."-Adam D. Krauss, Foster's Daily Democrat

"A marvelous read and striking achievement! This engrossing and perceptive biography offers a balanced yet critical analysis of both Martin Luther King Jr. and his epochal times in their full complexity."-Waldo Martin, U.C. Berkeley, author of No Coward Soldiers: Black Cultural Politics in Postwar America

"In this richly accessible and commanding study, Harvard Sitkoff provides a timely reminder of the enduring significance of Martin Luther King's spiritual strivings and quest for social justice. A welcome contribution to the King canon, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop brims with insights into the African American most emblematic of the modern Civil Rights Movement."-Darlene Clark Hine, Northwestern University

"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. The man who emerges is not the homogenized King celebrated every January, but a radical critic of military adventurism and economic and racial injustice, who speaks to the present as powerfully as to his own time."-Eric Foner, Columbia University

"King is a perfect combination of author and subject: one of the deans of civil rights history tracing the life of the movement's towering figure. Harvard Sitkoff has performed a remarkable feat, giving us a biography of Martin Luther King that is simultaneously concise and complex, judicious and deeply moving. What a marvelous recounting of this most important of American stories."-Kevin Boyle, Ohio State University, author of the National Book Award-winning Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age

"Sitkoff's book on King reads like a dream. Packed with vibrant quotations from King himself, it becomes a living narrative of how this giant among American political leaders moved on his mission to serve his people and his God, undeterred by the fearsome obstacles strewn in his path by everyone from his own father to the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover, to President Lyndon Johnson. A spellbinder, it brings all the good work of David Garrow and Taylor Branch to bear on understanding this critical figure of our time, and in less than 300 pages."-William Chafe, Duke University

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Harvard Sitkoff

  • Harvard Sitkoff is a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire and the author or editor of more than eight books, including A New Deal for Blacks; The Struggle for Black Equality, 1945-1992 (H&W, 1993); and A History of Our Time.