If you made your way through the American public school system in the last quarter-century or so, you have probably heard more classroom references to Martin Luther King, Jr., than to any other historical figure. And of course it's impossible to read even for a week in the best newspapers and journals of public opinion without encountering mention of King and his legacy.
This very familiarity can be deceptive, in two ways. First, we can easily imagine we know more about King than we really do. Those documentaries with their iconic images are indispensable, but they don't magically confer knowledge in depth. And second, even if we have read a good deal in the massive and ever-growing literature devoted to King's life and his role in the civil rights movement—not "even if," in fact, but precisely because—we may very well be jaded, despite ourselves, jaded from overexposure and false piety, so that to recover a sense of those incredible events and, just as important, what they might mean for America right now, today: that is a formidable challenge, but one worth taking.
If you are up for that challenge, there's a timely new book, issued to mark the 75th anniversary of King's birth. (Did that stop you in your tracks for a moment as it did me? King could so very easily still be alive to day, I thought—but doesn't that miss the inexorable logic of his confrontation with Sauron-like powers?) The book is To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr,'s Sacred Mission to Save America 1955-1968, by Stewart Burns, for many years an editor of the King papers at Stanford and the compiler of Daybreak of Freedom, a valuable documentary history of the Montgomery bus boycott. (See my "Bookshelf" in the March/April 1998 Books &Culture, an issue ...1