Martin Luther King Day is fast-approaching, and to honor to the holiday, we like to re-read some of the iconic works that illuminate his legacy, impact and spirit. What makes for the perfect read – novels and non-fiction – in honor of MLK Day? Whether fiction or nonfiction, there’s a wide array of outstanding choices. Here are our picks of the best books for adults to read this year in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, including classic and contemporary novels, poetry, memoirs and other non-fiction.
What are the best novels and non-fiction books to read in honor of Martin Luther King Day?
The annual arrival of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in America brings a myriad set of emotions and feelings to the surface for many of us: pride, grief, frustration, hope, fear, courage, curiosity, loneliness and connection.
The day can be a kind of national reckoning. A day for tallying progress, and taking stock of losses – of marking the ground gained and lost. But it can also be a moment of deep personal reflection. Of community engagement. Of renewed purpose.
So what should one read on Martin Luther King Jr Day? Or in the days before and after?
Well, for sure we should all re-read Dr. King’s iconic I Have a Dream Speech. We should listen to it, too. But reading it reveals layers and insights that we sometimes miss because we’re floating on the wings of his brilliant oratory.
Dr. King was an incredible speaker, clearly – but he also had a sharp analytical mind that shines through even more clearly when you read this speech instead of only hearing it.
What else, though?
Maybe a history of the great man himself. Or a narrative of the civil rights movement. Perhaps a biography of a towering figure in African-American history. Or a slave narrative.
For those of us who love reading novels – in part because they immerse us far more deeply in the meaning of certain events than a recitation of the actual facts themselves – there are several ways to engage. A classic written by an iconic black author. A new work from a brilliant new voice.
With apologies in advance if we left one of your favorite treasured works off of this year’s list, here are our top picks of the best reads for Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year.
the best novels and non-fiction books to read in honor of Martin Luther King Day in 2024
best books for MLK Day 2024: classic novels and poetry collections
best books for MLK Day 2024: contemporary poetry and novels
1. Wade in the Water: Poems by Tracy K. Smith.
We begin our list of contemporary books that are among the best for adults to read for MLK Day with a collection of poetry. Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith, the former Poet Laureate of the United States, is a collection of poems that excavate and assess the lasting wounds of America’s struggles with race and class, and a meditation on what it means to be a citizen, a mother, and an artist. One poem is comprised entirely of letter from African-Americans enlisted in the Civil War.
2. Brown: Poems by Kevin Young.
James Brown. John Brown’s raid. Brown v. the Topeka Board of Ed. The prize-winning author of Blue Laws meditates on all things “brown” in this powerful collection. Divided into “Home Recordings” and “Field Recordings,” Brown speaks to the way personal experience is shaped by culture, while culture is forever affected by the personal. Young recounts tales from his black Kansas boyhood to comment trenchantly on our times.
3. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.
An American Marriage features a ripped-from-the-headlines plot about a young, well-educated American black man wrongly accused and jailed for a crime he didn’t commit might initially draw you in because of its piercing portrayal of the criminal justice system in America, and its impact on the generations of black people caught in its maw.
But you’ll stay for the brilliantly-realized characterizations: the dialogue that rings so true that you start to forget that this a novel; the tender and fierce portrayal of the love between parents and children; the heartfelt love story; the evocative moments that will remind you of the first time you lost your innocent view of how the world really works. It’s a very quick read, masterfully done.
4. Monument: Poems New and Selected by Natasha Trethewey.
Monument: Poems New and Selected is the poet’s first retrospective. The collection includes verse that delineates the stories of working class African American women; one of the first black Civil War regiments; mestizo and mulatto figures in Casta paintings; and Gulf coast victims of Katrina. The collection was long-listed for the 2018 National Book Award for Poetry.
5. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.
Salvage the Bones is set in Gulf Coast of Mississippi the days preceding Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. A native of the fictional rural Mississippi town, Bois Sauvage, a pregnant teenage girl faces down a monstrous set of challenges. She’s living in poverty with her three brothers and a father who is battling alcoholism. And an epic storm is brewing that endangers all of their lives.
6. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
The Underground Railroad won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. This wrenching novel brings to life the everyday horrors of slavery. In the author’s construction, the Underground Railroad is not just a metaphor. It’s an actual transit system, with engineers and conductors operating a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. A young escaped slave, Cora, encounters different worlds during her odyssey from south to north. As she wages a fierce struggle to be free, her story becomes a meditation on the legacy of slavery and its stain on America and its people.
7. Five-Carat Soul by James McBride.
Five-Carat Soul is a collection of never-before-published short stories. In it, the National Book Award-winning author explores identity, humanity and history. In one, an antiques dealer discovers that a legendary toy commissioned by Civil War General Robert E. Lee now sits in the home of a black minister in Queens. In another, an American president draws inspiration from a conversation he overhears in a stable. And members of The Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band recount stories from their eventful lives.
8. Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.
Friday Black, a debut story collection, introduced the world to the voice of a young writer with incredible range. Through a series of surreal and heartbreaking tales, he takes a razor-sharp satirical look at what it’s like to be young and black in America right now.
9. Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires.
Heads of the Colored People is also a debut collection of short stories, each of which examines the concept of black identity in a “post-racial” era. In each one, vibrant characters grapple with black identity and middle class life – often in wrenching ways.
10. New People by Danzy Senna.
With New People, the bestselling author of Caucasia returns with a subversive tale of race, class and manners in contemporary America. An attractive young couple, seemingly perfect for each other, live together in a black bohemian enclave in Brooklyn. They’ve even landed a starring role in a documentary about “new people” like them, who are blurring the old boundaries of race as a brave new era dawns. But the protagonist finds herself inexplicably drawn to a black poet who doesn’t fit the definition of what her life was supposed to be.
best books for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2024: memoirs and other nonfiction
There are classic works about race in America and African-American history and culture that deserve to be re-read. Sometime they slip off our radar screen because we take them for granted. And of course, there are always brilliant new arrivals perfect for our bookshelves and a Martin Luther King Jr. Day read-in.
best books for MLK Day 2024: Classic and iconic nonfiction
Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. Our Kind of People by Lawrence Otis Graham (full disclosure: Graham is the author’s late husband). Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
best books for MLK Day 2024: contemporary memoirs and other nonfiction
1. Becoming by Michelle Obama.
In her memoir, Becoming, former First Lady Michelle Obama invites us into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her. From her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address.
2. Creative Quest by Questlove.
Creative Quest by Questlove is a guide to creativity from one of the most wildly creative people around. The musician, bandleader, designer, producer, culinary entrepreneur, professor, and all-around cultural omnivore shares his wisdom on the topics of inspiration and originality. His inspirations, stories and lessons should help all of us live our best creative lives in the new year.
3. Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black “Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black “Cargo” is a never-before-published true story written by the famous author of the Harlem Renaissance, who penned the American classic Their Eyes Were Watching God. One of the best non-fiction books for adults to read in honor of MLK Day this year, it recounts the life of Cudjo Lewis. Lewis was a 95-year-old man who Hurston interviewed in Plateau, Alabama, in 1927. Lewis was the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade, and after Hurston spoke to him about his experiences, the horrors of slavery, and their lasting effects on his life, she wrote this account—tragic, haunting, and essential.
4. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight.
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is the first comprehensive biography of Douglass, written by an author who has devoted his life to the subject. It’s definitely one of the best non-fiction books to read to honor MLK Day this year. This work documents many of the things already know about the great man: his escape from slavery; self-education; and his abolitionist work. Here we also learn a lot more about his lesser-known contributions to the women’s suffrage movement.
5. Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry.
Looking for Lorraine is a revealing portrait of one of the most gifted and charismatic – yet least understood – black artists and intellectuals of the twentieth century. And an excellent entry on our list of what to read to honor MLK Day this year. Although best-known for her seminal work A Raisin in the Sun, her short life (she died at 34) was full of extraordinary experiences and achievements.
6. Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon.
In Heavy: An American Memoir, the author writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his trek to New York as a young college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, anorexia, obesity, and the writing life. Through the course of the book, his personal stories open up to illuminate the currents running through present-day American society.
7. There Will Be No Miracles Here: A Memoir by Casey Gerald.
This fascinating memoir begins with a scene on New Year’s Eve 1999, when the author attends his grandfather’s black evangelical church to see who will be carried off in the Rapture when the year 2000 dawns. From there, we trace the steps of his eventful life: childhood in Dallas with a fragile mother who frequently disappears. Then football at Yale, a job on Wall Street, and access to the inner sanctums of power and wealth. But the true moral of the story is what Gerald learns at the pinnacle of success in America, how he decides to change his trajectory, and what his piercing questions might mean for our own lives.
8. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly. Surely you already know the basic outlines of this true – and incredibly inspiring – story. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s your chance.
9. Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay.
Roxane Gay is a unique voice in the conversation about what it means to be black and female in America today. And Bad Feminist is a perfect introduction to the prolific author’s work. At a time when the intersection of race and gender is more fraught than ever, Gay’s work is essential reading.
10. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice by Bryan Stevenson.
We conclude our list of the best novels and non-fiction books for adults to read to honor the spirit of MLK Day with a hero’s journey. The author was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need. Just Mercy is the true story of one of his first clients was Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Stevenson into a tangle of conspiracy and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.
the best novels and non-fiction books to read for MLK Day 2024
Those are our top picks for what to read to honor MLK Day this year – a superb collection of some of the best novels and books of poetry and nonfiction for adults (of course, there are lots of wonderful children’s books on this topic, too). So, what’s at the top of your list, dear reader?