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New Martin Luther King Biography Aimed at Young Readers

As Americans observe the annual holiday set aside to honor Martin Luther King, Junior, a new book for young people explores the life and impact of the famous civil rights leader. Don't Know Much About Martin Luther King Jr. (HarperCollins) is the latest in a series by Kenneth C. Davis, whose previous best sellers include Don't Know Much About History. In his new book, Mr. Davis uses his trademark question and answer format to illuminate both landmark events and little known incidents from Martin Luther King, Junior's life.

The famous "I Have a Dream" speech is played and replayed every year on Martin Luther King Day. Kenneth Davis calls the 1963 address a "clarion call for the nation," but just one of the many achievements for which the Reverend King deserves to be remembered. "I think he's been frozen in time in that wonderful moment at Washington where he delivers that speech, and there's so much more to his story. It's so much more complex, and that's what I tried to bring to this new book."

In Don't Know Much About Martin Luther King Jr., Kenneth Davis tells the story of the minister and activist who worked to bring about massive social change without violence. The Reverend King believed so firmly in the principles he espoused that he refused to strike back even when he was attacked, and he taught his children to do the same.

Kenneth Davis calls him a man "who practiced what he preached. This was an astonishing notion that had never been tried on a mass scale in American history before. Of course Martin Luther King was profoundly influenced by two figures in particular--Thoreau, who wrote about civil disobedience back in the 19th century, and then later on Gandhi, the great leader of India's non-violent independence movement. They suited very much his own ideas as a Christian of how to change the world through these non-violent techniques."

Kenneth Davis traces Martin Luther King, Junior's drive and commitment back to his early years in the southern state of Georgia, where he was born in 1929, first called Michael Luther King. "His father, when young Michael was five years old, went to the Holy Land," Mr. Davis says, "and had a bit of an epiphany, came back and changed his own name to Martin Luther King in honor of the Protestant reformer Martin Luther from the 1500s, and changed his son's name as well."

While the book describes the young Martin Luther King as a typical little boy, who got into his share of mischief, he also showed signs of the charismatic leader he would become. Kenneth Davis says the Reverend King grew up loving language. "And one of his first experiences going away from home was to a young orator's contest. His father and his grandfather were ministers in a very prominent church in Atlanta, and he was used to hearing them speak. His love of language helped him get into college very early, even though he said he didn't read very well, only on an eighth grade level. But he was clearly a thinker, a writer and a person who was drawn to not only big words but big ideas."

Kenneth Davis says the future civil rights leader was first exposed to integration after finishing high school, when he went north to Connecticut to pick tobacco. "He worked alongside white folks, and for the first time in his life he went to eat in restaurants where there was no segregation. He could sit anywhere he liked. When he rode back, he rode on trains that were no longer segregated until he reached Washington, D.C., and then the dining cars would be curtained off. So this was his first contact with a world perhaps he'd read about or heard about, but had never seen for himself. And it had a profound influence on him."

Martin Luther King, Junior began to rise to public prominence in 1955, with his guiding role in the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama. In the years that followed, he criss-crossed the American South leading protest marches and taking part in sit-in demonstrations. He even went to jail for his actions.

Some of his fellow African Americans complained that his tactics were not radical enough, while others believed he was too aggressive, that civil rights issues could best be decided in court. But Kenneth Davis says television and newspaper images of the Reverend King and his followers profoundly affected American public opinion. "When they saw peaceful demonstrators simply walking across a bridge or trying to ride a bus and being met with dogs and water hoses and water cannons--the viciousness and violence of the response to this essentially non-violent approach I think shocked many Americans into a new sense of reality about what was happening in America. It certainly also shocked the powers-that-be in Washington."

Kenneth Davis describes Martin Luther King, Junior's agenda for social change as becoming broader and more revolutionary in his later years. "I think he became more radical in terms of what he was thinking of accomplishing. I don't think he really planned to change tactics. Dr. King came to see that the problems were not just segregation and racial discrimination but there were real issues of poverty in America that cut across race lines, and he also saw a tremendous connection between discrimination and poverty and the war in Vietnam. And as a non-violent person he came increasingly to oppose the war."

Martin Luther King, Junior was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. By that time, new laws had been passed that guaranteed African Americans equal access to jobs and voting privileges. Kenneth Davis says today's young readers might find it hard to imagine a time when such rights were not a way of life in the United States. But if Martin Luther King, Junior were alive today, the author suggests he would still view his country with mixed emotions.

"I think Doctor King would look at the White House and see a black woman as Secretary of State, and he might smile and think, she's a Republican, but still we've come a long way. On the other hand he'd look at the poverty, which was highlighted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We saw that this is still a problem that deeply devastates a great many people in America. So in many ways we've come a long way, but he would probably say we still have a lot of work to do."