Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Stephen B. Oates (Harper Perennial, 2013 reissue)

“…  the church has been like a weak and ineffectual trumpet making uncertain sounds,

rather than a strong trumpet sounding a clarion call for truth and righteousness.

If the church of Jesus Christ is to regain its power, and its message its authentic ring,

it must go out with a new determination not to conform to this world.”

- From King’s sermon “Transformed Nonconformist” (1962-1963)

April 4, 2018 marks fifty years since Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. It seems fitting that in the month that we honor Dr. King, I review a biography about his life and impact. Let the Trumpet Sound, by American historian Stephen B. Oates, presents King as a very real and admirable leader, showing his challenges and triumphs and detailing how, against great odds, he changed American history.

Choosing what book to read about King’s life is no easy task. First of all, King wrote a number of exceptional autobiographical works. In addition, King biographies abound. In fact, in my quest to learn more about King, I started by reading Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, the first volume of a 3000-page trilogy that is as excellent as it is formidable. For this review, however, I wanted to recommend a shorter volume. Having tasted Branch’s breadth, I found this 592-page biography to be accessible and, at least by comparison, “concise.”

Oates’ biography is a well-researched, chronological study of King’s life, starting from his birth and moving steadily through his non-violent campaigns, all the way to his untimely death. We meet King’s friends and foes. We see the relentless schedule he kept as he battled prejudice in South and North, stood against both black and white violence, and wavered between doubt and confidence, depression and elation. We also see how the backdrop of national and personal events – Vietnam War politics, Civil Rights legislation debates, family needs and concerns, and a growing Black Power movement – influenced King’s campaigns.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man who heard the call of God and continued relentlessly towards the goal of bringing justice to his people and equality to his nation. Fifty years later, King’s vision is closer but not yet achieved. We would do well to listen to his heart and to follow his example.

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