Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles Johnson and Bob Adelman, 2008

I’ve seen the promised land. And I may not get there with you.But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Black and white photos have a way of stopping time. Even when the subject moves, the picture has an eerie stillness that color photos don’t. There’s something elegant and regal about black and white that makes that moment seem paramount, even when it’s just one of many moments in an ordinary day.

Johnson and Adelman’s biography, Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., captures hundreds of moments in Dr. King’s short life. A few from his childhood, a few with his family, but mostly Dr. King and his aides fighting for racial justice. Some show him getting arrested not only for his civil disobedience, but overblown violations like failing to switch his driver’s license to another state in a timely manner. Most of the pictures are of Dr. King as he speaks to crowds of varying sizes.

In prose that is powerful but never melodramatic, writer Johnson recounts the big moments of Dr. King’s life—Birmingham, Selma, the Nobel Prize—as well as the lesser known verities that showed his humanity. Complemented with pictures compiled by activist and photojournalist Bob Adelman, the book offers a fuller view into Dr. King’s committment and perseverance. In one disturbing photo, Dr. King calmly sits after being stabbed with a letter opener by mentally troubled black woman, the letter opener still sticking out of his chest. In the weeks following the incident, he begged authorities to treat her mercifully and get her the help she needed. In a happier photo,
he sits at a piano with his wife, Coretta, and their children joyfully belting out songs.

The book doesn’t presume to know Dr. King’s thoughts or feelings about the events contained on its pages. Certainly, a man as eloquent and vocal as
Dr. King didn’t need someone to articulate his emotions for him. It does however give context and history to those events which makes Dr. King’s work all the more remarkable. One can only imagine the physical exhaustion he felt not only from his non-stop traveling but also the mental stress of worrying about his family’s safety as well as his own.  One can only guess his deep disappointment when faced with the setbacks on what at times probably seemed an impossible journey.

At forty-four, I’m now five years older than Dr. King. To think of all he accomplished in such a short time with so many obstacles is staggering. I’m struck by the youthful energy that radiates from the photos, even those taken near the end of his life when he must have been so tired from the travel and the strain of his mission. Learning new information about Martin Luther King, Jr. gave me a new appreciation for him.

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. humanizes a man who’s taken on a mythic status in our society.