History Thread: Jonathan Eig’s King: A Life (2023)

Jonathan Eig’s biography of Martin Luther King Jr. comes at a time when his subject, more than ever, is the focus of controversy. Like many historical figures, “King’s life and lessons are often smoothed and polished beyond recognition,” creating a nonpartisan saint that people of all political persuasions embrace. Radical progressives cite King’s praise of democratic socialism and critiques of capitalist inequity; liberals find strength in his message of inclusivity and tolerance. Even conservatives try, mendaciously, to claim King’s mantle, though with less success; they, and many milquetoast liberals, enjoy “talking about how peaceful he was, how loving he was, how kind he was in a way to encourage black Americans to be more passive in their activism,” as writer Ijeoma Oluo observes.

King: A Life is the first full of biography of King in decades, after the formidable works of Taylor Branch and David J. Garrow in the ’80s and ’90s, and has no use for such simplifications. Eig, previously a biographer of Lou Gehrig and Muhammad Ali, shows that the “Santa Clausification” of King fails to grapple with the substance of his beliefs, or to depict him as a human being. This MLK is a man with personal flaws and political missteps, a shrewd strategist along with an inspiring orator and gifted leader.

Eig’s book spends much time sketching King’s personal relationships, starting with his father Martin Luther King Sr. A popular Atlanta priest with strong memories of growing up in the post-Reconstruction South, Daddy King’s domineering personality cast a long shadow and provided a forbidding example to his son. Though King considered becoming a teacher, studying at Morehouse College, he eventually chose the priesthood, attending graduate school in Boston and marrying aspiring Coretta Scott over his father’s objections. King already showed signs of a dual nature; he was accused, probably accurately, of plagiarizing his college thesis. He boasted of being a “wrecker” in terms of his personal relationships, courting no shortage of pretty co-eds. But his intelligence, rhetorical gifts and oratorical brilliance seemed almost fully formed.

In 1954, King was assigned to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama, where he soon gained a reputation as an uncommonly powerful orator. Those who knew King by reputation were disarmed first by his relatively short stature, then by his informal, jocular style which won him many admirers. Just a year after arriving in Montgomery, though, King found himself in the limelight, when the NAACP’s Rosa Parks initiated a bus boycott that helped kick off the modern Civil Rights Movement. Over the next twelve months, MLK went from a precocious young preacher to one of America’s most influential Black leaders.

King’s leadership of the Boycott gained him a national reputation, though as Eig stresses he was only one of many organizers, from Parks to NAACP leader E.D. Nixon, who carried it to its conclusions. King wrestled with the burdens and pleasures of his newfound notoriety. On the one hand, he was feted in the press and lionized by Black leaders for his courage and oratory; but he and his family were targeted with arrest, harassment, death threats and several assassination attempts (one in Harlem, where he was stabbed in the chest by a deranged woman). King developed close friendships with fellow minister Ralph Albernathy, who helped him cofound the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Stanley Levison, a white progressive whose ties to the Communist Party earned King no end of grief. But he also clashed with allies like Birmingham organizer Fred Shuttlesworth, who feuded with King over tactics and resented his outsized media coverage.

In Birmingham Jail

Eig provides lively sketches of the highpoints of the Civil Rights Movement, from the confrontations in Montgomery and Birmingham to the March on Washington, amusingly depicted in novelistic style through the perspective of onlookers (including King’s police guard Gunny Gundrum, who fidgets with the microphone during King’s speech). He shows that King’s worldview wasn’t easily classified; an admirer of progressive theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr and Harry Emerson Fosdick, he also incorporated Gandhi’s tactics of nonviolence and Black community organizing to his work, creating an admixture of ideas that defied easy classification. While he described himself as “more socialistic than capitalistic” to Coretta, he balked at the materialism of Marxist thought and saw it more useful as a critique than a basis for action.

This pragmatism allowed him to win allies across the political spectrum. King had cordial relations with three presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson) and a fourth future president (Nixon), all of whom were alternately impressed and exasperated by the young organizer. King’s closest political ally was New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, standard bearer of the Republican Party’s dying liberal wing; but he worked most fruitfully with the Democrat Johnson, who called King a “n****r preacher” in private but unreservedly admired his guts and determination. His allies in the Black community ranged from the conservative Jackie Robinson to entertainers Harry Belafonte and Dick Gregory, to radical SNCC organizer Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture. While Carmichael butted heads with King over his “Black Power” slogan, he praised him as an “amazing, incredible, inspiring” leader who provided a generation of activists “their first real act of self-affirmation.”


While Taylor Branch’s three-volume biography depicts King’s political relationships in more detail, Eig makes heavy use of recently available documents, from oral histories to FBI files and White House tapes, to reconstruct King’s life. We’re reminded again of J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign against the man he dubbed America’s “top alley cat,” his connivance with Kennedy and Johnson in wiretapping King and the infamous “suicide letter” which, Eig shows, contributed to King’s periodic bouts of depression. Eig deals fairly with King’s near-compulsive infidelity, particularly his long-term relationship with SCLC’s Education Director Dorothy Cotton; though Coretta never acknowledged King’s affairs, the evidence is strong and damning. To Eig’s credit, he doesn’t use this information to downgrade King; it’s a part of his life that’s explored and placed in context, without undue stress.

Indeed, King’s actions weren’t always admirable. Bayard Rustin, among others, often criticized King for his aversion to conflict, a paradoxical trait for such a forceful protest leader. Rustin, who contributed mightily to the SCLC’s founding and the March on Washington, spoke from experience as King distanced himself from Rustin, both an ex-communist and a homosexual, under political pressure. Although Coretta described women as “the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement” in organizing grassroots support for marches and protests, King often pushed them into the background; at the March on Washington, he did not allow a single woman speaker and would not allow his wife to meet President Kennedy. “I’m usually at home,” Coretta lamented, “because my husband says you have to take care of the children.”


Nonetheless, Coretta came to play a crucial role in Martin’s life and career. Encouraged by Bayard Rustin, SNCC co-founder Ella Baker and others, she grew more outspoken and took part in speeches and demonstrations, sometimes in conjunction with her husband and sometimes alone. While her husband proved reluctant to speak out on foreign policy issues, she attended nuclear disarmament conferences and hosted rallies protesting the Vietnam War. She came to consider herself “a co-worker with a man whose life would have so profound an impact on the world,” and Martin admitted that his wife steeled him in his opinions.

Throughout Eig’s book, there’s a judicious attempt to measure King’s accomplishments and failings. He’s shown as someone who learned the hard way that successful demonstrations organized around a specific issue rather than generalities; hence the failure of his 1962 campaign in Albany, Georgia. And that his media savvy caused him to monopolize press coverage of the Movement, to the detriment and resentment of many allies, who sometimes mocked him as “De Lawd,” after a pompous character in Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures. Malcolm X and others framed his nonviolence as cowardice rather than strength; his cooperation with political leaders made him suspect on the Far Left, many of whom considered him an Establishment sellout. One CORE organizer mocked King for having “one foot in the cotton field and another in the White House.”


All of this might tally with the sanitized King modern readers are familiar with, helped by journalists and historians who exaggerated the rift between King and more radical leaders. Less so, however, with the man whose Letter from Birmingham Jail excoriated “white moderates” as the primary obstacle to progress. He also advocated for slavery reparations and universal healthcare, remarked that “most Americans are unconscious racists” and that white hopes that Black protests would fade before resolving the root causes of poverty and racism were “an illusion of the damned.” King had no illusions about the deep-seated causes of equality, and the anodyne rendering of his speeches obscures that, in his views of systemic racism, he wasn’t drastically different from Black Power advocates.

Yet while King shared much in common with Malcolm, Carmichael and the Black Panthers, his fundamental optimism never wavered. He maintained the importance of forging alliances with whites to overcome prejudice, and was idealistic enough to envision an America where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” which led Malcolm to contrast his “Dream” with the “Nightmare” faced by African-Americans in everyday life. Certainly, King’s hopefulness struck many radicals, Black and white, as ineffectual; he did not envision the wholesale revolution many advocated. Yet King’s idealism wasn’t naivety; he recognized that achieving his Dream required constant pressure, be it speeches, boycotts, protests or other forms of direct action. And that only such forceful action could King and his allies “make America a better nation.”

King in Chicago

King’s activism achieved apotheosis with the Selma protests of March 1965, which humiliated Alabama Governor George Wallace and steeled Lyndon Johnson’s resolve to pass the Voting Rights Act, leading the President to pronounce “We shall overcome” to an awestruck Congress. Yet even as King achieved this triumph, events pushed beyond his control. Race riots in Watts, and later Newark and Detroit, demonstrated that liberal reform could only offer so much solution to the poverty and discrimination faced by Black Americans – especially in northern cities, where de facto segregation proved particularly hard to uproot. After white rioters pelted King with rocks during an open housing campaign in Chicago, he remarked that “the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”

Ultimately, it was the Vietnam War, which steadily escalated under Johnson, struck at the core of King’s pacifist beliefs. While King made some cautious criticisms of the war in 1965, he was reluctant to break with the President who’d done so much to support his cause. But by 1967, the conflict had escalated enough that King felt it was no longer possible to ignore. By speaking out against “one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought,” King effectively broke ties with the White House, who came to view him as a dangerous radical. Conversely, King reforged his strained alliance with Stokely Carmichael and other leftists who’d previously dismissed him as a spineless compromiser.

King was assassinated in April 1968, while supporting sanitation strikers in Memphis and preparing for a Poor People’s Campaign more extensive than his previous March on Washington. King proposed a multiracial campaign to enforce “a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children,” a call which struck his enemies as socialist – and his allies as a clarion call for change. Eig doesn’t address the lingering conspiracy theories around King’s death, merely noting that J. Edgar Hoover was angry only that King’s death made him a martyr, that James Earl Ray was affiliated with a terrorist group which had targeted the SCLC in the past, and that the riots following his death only steeled conservatives in their resolve that King was a violence-inciting hypocrite.


If Eig’s book isn’t as detailed as Taylor Branch or David Garrow’s work, it’s still valuable for reminding us about how Martin Luther King was once one of America’s most divisive figures – and also one of its most dynamic, important and impactful ones. He was a human being, not a plaster saint; he had firm ideals, not just a vague sense of bonhomie, that called for specific actions beyond salving the conscience of white moderates. When Eig calls King “one of America’s Founding Fathers,” in demanding that the United States live up to its ideals, there’s more than a grain of truth – and his excellent, highly-readable book is worthy of his subject.