I don’t remember who suggested it, but someone, about four years ago, recommended Let the Trumpet Sounds as the best biography of Martin Luther King Jr. I picked up the Kindle edition back in early 2018 and just got around to listening to the audiobook, in part because it is free if you are an Audible member. Oates initially published this in 1982, roughly 15 years after MLK’s death. Three years ago was the 50th anniversary of King’s death.
Let the Trumpet Sound is my first full-length biography of King. It is not that I have not read about King. I have read two joint biographies of King and Malcolm X, including this one. I have read the autobiography of Coretta Scott King. I have read a narrow biography of just his seminary years. I have read his book Where do We Go From Here and collections of his writing and speeches. I have read a book about his social thought compared to Bonhoeffer and a book about Letter From a Birmingham Jail. And I read a book about the social impact his death had on the United States. And none of that includes books about general civil rights history or autobiographies, memoirs, or biographies of other civil rights figures.
But a single-volume biography of King still helps to orient the reader to the timeline and broad impact that his short 39 years had on the world. Oates is not writing a hagiography. King, while a great man, is not a perfect man here. He was able to inspire many, not the least of whom, his loyal staff. But he was not a perfect leader. There is a good discussion on several strategic missteps and areas where King pushed against the wishes of his staff and advisors. Some of those disagreements were likely good decisions, some bad. But no cultural-wide protest is going to be tactically or strategically perfect. Mistakes will be made.
I do wonder what aspects of this book have been called into question. Because as much as Oates spends a lot of time on how the FBI blatantly and illegally wiretapped and surveilled and tried to discredit King, it feels like some of the aspects of the reporting from the FBI were still given more credit than I am comfortable with. Hoover pledged to destroy King. And more than 50 years later, there are still documents that have not been released to the public yet.
I do wonder at how King could have had a more healthy life. Not just physically and emotionally, but with his kids and work. King was pushed to be all things, and he wanted to help everyone. There were few limits, so that he spent nearly 90 percent of his time on the road once the Montgomery campaign was completed. So much happened in the 13 years from the start of the Montgomery campaign until his death. Even at nearly 600 pages, I know many events were glossed over or skipped.
One other aspect of the book being dated, virtually all racialized language describing Black or African American people uses the term Negro. That is historically accurate to King’s own quotations. But even in 1982, that was a choice that seems to be questionable. I can understand the justification of not wanting to highlight King and other people’s quotations by using Black or African American to refer to the quotes, but Negro within the quotes. When I did a word search, more than 500 instances of Negro appear, which means that there is likely more than that because that is the maximum number of words shown. More troubling is the 87 occurrences of the N-word. I was not intentionally searching, but as I just glanced now, every instance was inside a quotation. But the audiobook does read out loud both Negro and the N-word. It is a consideration if you choose to listen to the audiobook (which again, is free for Audible members currently.)
There is far more to the civil rights era than just Martin Luther King Jr. Books about unknown people, or characters that only get mentioned, are essential. And there are many more characters that were important, like Stokley Carmicheal and John Lewis or Rosa Parks. But we do still need to give attention to Martin Luther King Jr.
If someone has a suggestion of another full-length biography of King, I would like to hear it, especially if it is a more recent one.