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New book updates the King legacy

Submitted by Alton Young on September 14, 2013 – 4:32 pmNo Comment

Professor Kirk shows a copy of his latest book. Photo by Alton Young.

UALR professor John A. Kirk released a new book on Aug. 30 titled “Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.” The 50-year anniversary of the march on Washington and Dr. King’s famous speech serve as an appropriate backdrop for the release of a new book about the civil rights leader.

The sixth published book by the Donaghey professor is the second he has written since becoming chair of the History Department. Some of his past books have focused on the civil rights history here in Arkansas. The subject of King is not a new one for Kirk though, having previously written two books about King.

The allure of writing about King was instilled in him in the United Kingdom, where he was born in the city of Rochdale, Lancaster, and where there is still a great appreciation for King’s legacy. The book was released in the U.K. nearly a month ago. “Martin Luther King is an iconic figure internationally. Americans see him as an American hero, but he is, in fact, an international hero and somebody that people look to as an important figure in American history,” Kirk said.

“People see King as an important window into American society and culture and my own interest came through being an undergraduate in American Studies at the University of Nottingham, “ he said.
Kirk earned his Ph.D from the University of Newcastle where he completed his post-graduate work on the Little Rock school crisis.

The process of writing the six books has been different each time. The books that he’s written on King include a biography and a book of thematic debates, but his latest required a different approach. The new book, which Kirk refers to as part narrative, part documentary reader, is shorter than the biography and includes what Kirk calls primary documents, such as some of King’s speeches.

“For this one, it was a question of both writing and revising the book’s narrative to make it shorter and more concise and also adding in those documents,” Kirk said. “That was a slightly different process.”

Kirk taught at the University of London for 12 years while writing some of his previous books. Since coming to UALR in 2010, Kirk has served as chair of the History department. With the added demands of the position, he finds that the closer proximity to the subject matter of his books doesn’t make it any easier to complete them. “Coming here has been a trade-off,” he said. “I’m closer to the sources, but I have less time to use them.”

Professor Deborah J.Baldwin, dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences spoke of the importance of the Kirk’s new book to the history of King. “Professor Kirk’s book adds depth to our knowledge about the relationship of the man to the movement he inspired,” she said.

The book is part of a series called Seminar Studies History and according to Kirk would provide an good entry point into the study of Martin Luther King, who has a dense amount of work devoted to his life and impact. “That’s the point of the text, it’s an ideal entry level text. The idea is to make it a very simple, straight forward introduction to the life of King that anybody can pick up not knowing anything about the man and the movement before,” Kirk said.

A helpful feature of the book is a glossary that gives descriptions of key terms and concepts such as disenfranchisement, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, or Brown v Board of Education. This will assist readers who may be unfamiliar with terminology used in the text.

For those who may think they already know the King story, Kirk offers another take on the book. “It’s not just repeating the stories that you’ve heard time and again. It will challenge some of the ideas that you have about Martin Luther King and help you to see him in a different light,” he said.

“A lot of people know who Martin Luther King is, but they know the Martin Luther King that is shaped by popular culture and the media,” he said. “This [book] helps to bridge those perceptions to a more critical look at King, grounded in the sources, grounded in the authority of scholarship, but written also in an easy to understand way, which people can engage with.”

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