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Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David J. Garrow - Reviewed by Frances Joyce


Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David J. Garrow won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the seventh annual Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

From 2011 to 2017, Garrow was a professor of Law and History and Distinguished Faculty Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Garrow has also taught at Duke University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, The City University of New York, The Cooper Union, the College of William and Mary, American University, and Emory University.

He spent seven years researching and writing this book. The information in this comprehensive biography is based on more than 700 interviews and Dr. King’s private papers. Garrow personally interviewed nearly 200 people who knew Dr. King including Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young and law enforcement officers and political leaders who fought to maintain racial segregation in their communities. In addition to these interviews, Garrow sifted through hundreds of published interviews and used the Freedom of Information Act to access F.B.I. Transcripts pertaining to their surveillance of Dr. King.

As I was reading the accounts of Dr. King’s life and the struggles of the African American community to fight Jim Crow laws and end racial segregation, I read several passages out loud to one of my sons. That’s how incomprehensible this time period was (unfortunately some of these beliefs and behaviors still exist). I actually had to say the words out loud to appreciate the full impact of what I was reading.

Garrow presents an unbiased and balanced account of Dr. King’s life providing valuable insight into King’s uncanny sense of realism tempered by his strong faith and his commitment to social justice for all people. Despite his many faults and fears, which Garrow carefully documents, Dr. King never wavered in his belief in nonviolent resistance, the power of forgiveness and mankind's ability to live together in harmony.

Garrow carefully chronicles the Civil Rights movement from the early days of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership League, acts of civil disobedience and meetings in church basements to a national movement which would forever change the lives of all Americans.

Along the way, Garrow introduces us to some of the lesser known heroes of the Civil Rights movement whose courage and sacrifice helped propel the quest for equal rights to the attention of the United States Supreme Court and ultimately persuaded President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark Civil Rights and US labor law outlawing discrimination based on color, religion, sex or national origin. Johnson also signed the  Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibits racial discrimination in voting (an act to enforce the 15th amendment of the Constitution).

If you want to have a better understanding of current events in relation to the history of the United States and the Civil Rights movement,  this book should be on your reading list. 

David J. Garrow is the author, co-author and editor of several books about the Civil Rights movement including biographies of Dr. Martin Luther King and other prominent African Americans. Some of his better known works include: Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; The F.B.I. And Martin Luther King, Jr., from “Solo” to Memphis; Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe V. Wade; and Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. You can find his books in bookstores and on or His review essays and law review articles have been featured in several national newspapers and magazines, Garrow’s past non-book publications can be found on his website,, organized chronologically and by topic.

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