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Thinking about Martin Luther King Jr., bookishly

January 18, 2010 |  4:02 pm

Mlkjr_1967

Many people are celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day by doing service or simply taking some time off. A few writers, however, have turned their attention to literary works by and about King. Here's a quick roundup.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s final manuscript, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" was written in Jamaica in 1967. Originally published in 1968, "Where Do We Go From Here" was reissued by Beacon Press this month. The website The Root looks at its cross-racial call for economic justice:

“In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out,” King wrote in 1967. “There are twice as many white poor as [black] poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and [black] alike.”

This was a radical — and unpopular — change for the preacher who is best-known for pushing voting, employment, housing and other civil rights for black Americans. At this point in his career, during what would become the final months of his life, he was widening his field of vision to seek an end to poverty among all Americans.

The New Yorker's Book Bench blog also turned to King's last book, focusing on his prescient analysis of technology. King wrote:

We must work passionately and indefatigably to bridge the gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress. One of the great problems of mankind is that we suffer from a poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.

Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external.

Writer Tayari Jones looks to King speechwriter Vincent Harding, who mused on King's difficult responsibilities as a leader. Seth Godin looks to King's focus on excelling in what you do. And professor Anne Fernald recalls a piece of fiction, "Dr. King's Refrigerator" by Charles Johnson, in which pineapple, ravioli, sauerkraut and a half-eaten tortilla stand in as metaphors for the cultures he brought together.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Martin Luther King Jr. at a 1967 peace rally in New York. Credit: Associated Press

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