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King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop , By Harvard Sitkoff

Elaine Sexton '76
Heather King '77
Scott Peterman '91
In Their Own Words:
Paul Martin '78
Courtney Maxwell '06
Michael Morshed '08
Leah Melber '92
Christopher Fauske '84
Patricia Lynne Grace Cummings '73
Also of Note:
Elizabeth Kirschner '79
Charlie Bevis '75
George C. Daughan '61
M. Ann Jacoby
News from Theatre and Dance alumni:
Mike O'Malley '88, Michael Graziadei '01, Robyn Hurder and Maryann Plunkett '76

King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop
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Remaking a Myth
King was not who we thought he was, argues Harvard Sitkoff

Martin Luther King Jr. is enshrined in America's pantheon of celebrated leaders as an unparalleled orator and organizer who helped right the wrongs of the past. But as Harvard Sitkoff points out in his immensely readable new biography, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop (Hill and Wang, 2008), we know less about King the radical visionary, whose most deeply held beliefs continue to be relevant.

Harvard Sitkoff

"The King who is trotted out each January is a moderate guy who worked well with presidents to accomplish some decent, long overdue reforms," explains Sitkoff, a UNH professor of history. But most of King's ideas about economics, foreign policy and the exploitation of people around the world were quite radical and very unpopular at the time, he says. "For example, he was vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War and spoke out against it long before it was acceptable to do so. He insisted that racial justice was inextricably linked to economic justice and to international peace. The FBI accused him of being 'the most dangerous Negro in the country.'"

Sitkoff is the author or editor of eight books on civil rights history, but this book, he says, was the easiest to write. "King has had the biggest impact on my life of any public figure. I remember the excitement I felt as a boy reading accounts of the Montgomery bus boycott. As a college student, I went south to march and picket. Nothing exhilarated me more than King shaking my hand at a demonstration in Virginia in 1962." He also recalls standing in the rain in Atlanta as King's casket went by. "This was a book I had to write," he says.

book cover

Stikoff's purpose in writing this biography was to write a concise book for the general reader. One of the many moving accounts in the book is the "dark night of the soul" King experienced when thrust into the forefront of the Montgomery bus boycott. The 27-year-old King had been pastor at a local church for just three months when Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat; nevertheless, he was asked to lead an umbrella organization to organize the boycott.

King's public position drew death threats, hate mail, jail time and persistent obscene telephone calls that left him exhausted and paralyzed with fear. His faith up until that point had largely been intellectual, according to Sitkoff, who describes a scene where King is sitting alone at his kitchen table and hears an inner voice. "He believed it was Jesus telling him to fight on," writes Sitkoff. "For the first time, God became profoundly real and personal to him."

That experience, and his peace-filled courage in the days to follow, touched millions of people and changed the course of history, Sitkoff says: "Although he was on the stage of public affairs for barely a decade, and never held public office, King shaped more sweeping changes in habits of thought and action than any other figure of his century." ~

Anne Downey '95G, a freelance writer who lives in Eliot, Maine, received her Ph.D. in English from UNH.

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