The following is a book review of Harvard Sitkoff’s, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop. Hill and Wang: Yale University Press, 2009. In this review Martin Luther King is examined from the personal perspective, including his educational, theological backgrounds, and what made him an effective leader of the civil rights movement.
Harvard Sitkoff, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop. Hill and Wang: Yale University Press, 2009
Book Review by Thomas White
Harvard Sitkoff’s, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop is a revealing chronological account of the life of the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Sitkoff’s account traces King’s life beginning in 1929 Georgia as the son of a preacher, to his choice to enter the ministry as a “force for intellect and racial protest”, followed by his unshakable faith in non-violent protest as a vehicle for achieving racial equality. In a departure from the celebratory history which has been written on King lauding only his accomplishments, Sitkoff reveals an image of King the man that looks not only at his successes, but his failures as well, leaving the reader with a much more honest portrayal. Sitkoff’s portrayal of King reveals where his faith and activism were leading him, by helping America see its complicity in economic and racial injustice. The complete picture of King that Sitkoff offers his reader is one which provides a much fuller depiction of the man who would become one of history’s greatest civil rights leaders.
King, who was born in Atlanta, Georgia, was the son and grandson of preachers. Martin Luther King, who was originally named Michael, would later as a result of his father’s inspired trip to the Holy Land have his name changed by his father to Martin Luther in 1934. Sitkoff writes that during young Martin’s formative years, his parents instilled him with a high sense of self-esteem, but just as importantly they taught him a lesson that would serve him his whole life, and that was “to hate segregation, but love those who practiced it.” Young Martin, who didn’t share in his father’s same unflinching reliance on religious dogma, initially saw himself becoming a doctor or lawyer, rather than following in his father’s footsteps. It was not until King’s senior year in high school that he came to the realization that “the ministry could be a force for intellect and racial protest.” Initially King saw the “ministry as a social mission, not a divine inspiration”, that divine inspiration would occur later. In the meantime however, King would begin his studies at Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948 where he studied the works of different thinkers such as Karl Marx and Mohandas Gandhi, discovering Gandhi’s ideas on non-violent resistance. It was also during his time at Crozer that King would hone his oratory skills, “King elevated his preaching to an art form” a point which would serve him well in his ability to get his message out.
Following his graduation from Crozer, King then began his doctoral studies at Boston University. It was during King’s collegiate studies, that Sitkoff reveals more about King’s personal side, when he makes the point that King began engaging in plagiarism, first at Crozier, and then to a much greater degree while at Boston. Sitkoff also reveals that while away at college, King began engaging in a pattern of womanizing that would plague him through the rest of his life, an issue that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would later seize upon in order to try and discredit King. Following the completion of his studies at Boston University, King next began “reading for his dissertation” and accepted his first pastorship at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. A pastorship at Dexter was considered a highly prestigious assignment, a point which was not lost on King. King appreciated Dexter’s much more refined congregation made up by many of Montgomery’s leading black business leaders, which stood in marked contrast to “the emotionalism of much Negro religion” which embarrassed King. Even fellow Montgomery pastor Ralph Abernathy when speaking to King at the time, jokingly stated that Dexter was a church where “you talk about Plato or Socrates.” Furthermore King’s new position at Dexter made him the highest paid black minister in all of Montgomery.
It was shortly after arriving at Dexter that King would first demonstrate some of the remarkable leadership and oratory skills which he would be renowned for. Soon after King arrived at Dexter, and while trying to avoid the limelight, instead found himself thrust into the limelight after being elected as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). King is elected not because of his yet unproven leadership skills, but because of the many perceived contacts the other members of the MIA believed King would have as pastor of Dexter. The year is 1955, and King finds himself smack in the middle of the civil rights battle, when Rosa Parks, a black seamstress from Montgomery, refuses to give up her seat to a white patron and move to the back of the bus. King, by virtue of his position as president of the MIA, is chosen to lead the Montgomery bus boycott demanding change to Montgomery’s segregated busing practices.
The Montgomery bus boycott also marked for the first time King’s remarkable speaking ability which served to galvanize so many to the civil rights cause. This was more than apparent when King mounted the podium for the first time to speak out against segregated busing and was able to express “his people’s deepest feelings.” King’s speech that day had not only legitimized “their protest in the words of the Founding Fathers and Jesus”, but had just as suddenly revitalized the movement for freedom and equality. The Montgomery bus boycott had not only propelled King to the forefront of the civil rights struggle as a leader, but in the words of “black historian Lerone Bennet, Jr., changed the course of the protest and made King a living symbol.” Sitkoff notes that “his genius for inspirational oratory and leadership was a consequence of, not a reason for, his selection to head the boycott.”
King’s ability to inspire and lead would continue to prove instrumental in leading the charge for equality, as King’s strategy of non-violent protest would become a force for change. King’s effective leadership strategy revolved around a plan which was symbolized by the history altering Selma, Alabama march. In Selma, King instructed his followers to adhere to a methodology of non-violent peaceful confrontation, which would expose for the news media the racial onslaught that they as black Americans faced every day when they sought to “exercise their constitutional rights.” King’s approach exposed the blight of black Americans by bringing their struggle to the televisions and living rooms of white America. King’s strategy was so successful because it led to such uproar that “federal intervention and legislation” would soon follow. King’s non-violent confrontational approach forced the Presidential administrations of both Kennedy and Johnson into taking definitive legislative action, something that neither administration was anxious to pursue. King’s leadership and his non-violent confrontational strategy resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act legislation which would soon follow in 1965.
King’s ground breaking civil rights leadership which was instrumental in expressing the black struggle to white America, and which led to civil rights legislation came with a high personal price. King was a man who was under an enormous amount of strain, as a result of constant infighting from within the civil rights movement, surveillance by the FBI, and a faction of white racist society intent on seeing him dead. King had already endured one near fatal attack in 1958, when a deranged woman stabbed King during a book signing at “Blumstein’s department store in Harlem.” King who already had one brush with death was well aware of the many threats to his life, and according to Sitkoff on more than one occasion was on the verge of a breakdown. Martin Luther King the man had his demons, a point alluded to earlier by Sitkoff, which when added to the immense strain he was already feeling ,threatened to bring both King and the civil rights movement that he championed down.
One of King’s personal demons which ranked highest on Sitkoff’s list was King’s unquenchable appetite for sex. King regularly indulged his “appetite for women and gluttony” on a scale as “grandiose as his ego”, and tried to use this as a means of stress relief. Despite the pleas of close associates, King still continued. In fact on one occasion even President Kennedy cautioned King, telling him he was being watched by the FBI, and to take care “not to lose your cause for the same reason” as in the case of former British war minister John Profumo. Sitkoff emphasizes this point when he reveals that King continued to engage in womanizing even after the FBI revealed this to King’s wife Coretta, by way of a Christmas package which contained a tape recording of sexual liaisons between King and other women. Despite the obvious disparity which existed between King’s own spiritual and religious beliefs, which King understood all too well, King still continued to indulge in his lust for women and gluttony. The King in Sitkoff’s portrayal is that of a man who despite having had accomplished so much in such a short period of time, was still a man with feet of clay unlike the King lauded in so many celebratory depictions.
Harvard Sitkoff’s, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop is a revealing account of one America’s most pre-eminent leaders for equality and civil rights. Sitkoff presents an image of a man who accomplishes so much in such a short time without the benefit of ever holding public office, yet at the same time portrays the image of a man who is deeply conflicted. King the public image, and King the man, are presented in such a manner that one almost seems destined to destroy the other. Sitkoff peels back the veneer of King, exposing a man who feels divinely inspired to lend voice to those in the world seeking justice, while at the same time he jeopardizes all that he can or hope to accomplish because of his own inner demons. Sitkoff’s King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop is must read not only for those historians interested in civil rights history, but for anyone who wishes to learn more about America’s history.
Sitkoff, Harvard. King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.
 Harvard Sitkoff, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009), 12
 Ibid, 10
 Sitkoff, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop, 12
 Ibid, 18
 Ibid, 15
 Ibid, 20
 Sitkoff, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop, 11
 Ibid, 20
 Ibid, 33
 Sitkoff, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop, 39
 Ibid, 30
 Ibid, 148
 Sitkoff, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop, 65
 Ibid, 64