three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
10-May-June-2004
user_rating: 
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Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Sacred Mission to Save America, 1955-1968

A-ToMountaintopAmerica changed forever on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Yet as Burns argues, King was just one voice of many in the 1960s civil rights struggle. Although he entered the movement center stage, he was more of its charismatic ambassador and media planner than its agitator. Burns pays close attention to King's evolution from a young minister to a national leader. Viewing himself as an unworthy Moses, King grappled with deeply philosophical issues, from religious faith to Gandhi's call for nonviolent social action. These beliefs guided his actions until his assassination in 1968. In the end, King had a dream, and this dream became a reality.
Harper SF. 512 pages. $27.95.

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Burns' command of the source materials and sense of pacing give To the Mountaintop a powerful drive and an almost cinematic quality, scene by scene. ... Burns' portrait of the social and religious prophet, riven by doubts, shadowed by guilt, is an imposing work." Jason Berry

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[Burns] has produced the perfect biography for the age of Sept. 11: one that highlights the terrifying uncertainties of a struggle against evil and puts self-sacrifice at the center of the story." David L. Chappell

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"His portrait is not of the adept speaker or silky smooth apostle of agape but of a tormented prophet adrift in the madness of the 1960's. ... The author of Daybreak of Freedom, a history of the Montgomery bus boycott and the editor of a volume of the King papers, Burns ably places King in these larger circuits of faith and defiance." Jonathan Rieder

Baltimore Sun 3 of 5 Stars
"Comparing King to Jesus Christ, his inner circle to the disciples and Memphis in 1968 to Jerusalem seems a bit forced. ... This story never loses its power and is still worth reading." M. Dion Thompson

SF Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"...Burns is frank about King's shortcomings. ... He also lacks a gift for narrative, a serious drawback because biographies implicitly tell a story." Daniel Blue

Critical Summary

Former editor of the King archive at Stanford, Burns draws on oral histories, documents, and interviews to reconstruct the life of one of our great civil rights leaders. He sheds new light on King's personal and spiritual contributions to the movement, placing his thoughts and actions within a liberal, insurgent context: the Montgomery bus boycott, the Vietnam War, the March on Washington. Burns is refreshingly honest about King's missteps and self-doubts. Yet his writing, although straightforward, is not up to snuff. King was eloquent; Burns is not. King, though the first to jump on the bandwagon, was not self-congratulatory; Burns is. Still, To the Mountaintop is a passionate, timely achievement.