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“King: A Life,” by Jonathan Eig, is the first comprehensive account of the civil rights icon in decades.
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KING: A Life, by Jonathan Eig
Growing up, he was called Little Mike, after his father, the Baptist minister Michael King. Later he sometimes went by M.L. Only in college did he drop his first name and began to introduce himself as Martin Luther King Jr. This was after his father visited Germany and, inspired by accounts of the reform-minded 16th-century friar Martin Luther, adopted his name.
King Jr. was born in 1929. Were he alive he would be 94, the same age as Noam Chomsky. The prosperous King family lived on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. One writer, quoted by Jonathan Eig in his supple, penetrating, heartstring-pulling and compulsively readable new biography, “King: A Life,” called it “the richest Negro street in the world.”
Eig’s is the first comprehensive biography of King in three decades. It draws on a landslide of recently released White House telephone transcripts, F.B.I. documents, letters, oral histories and other material, and it supplants David J. Garrow’s 1986 biography “Bearing the Cross” as the definitive life of King, as Garrow himself deposed recently in The Spectator. It also updates the material in Taylor Branch’s magisterial trilogy about America during the King years.
King and his two siblings had the trappings of middle-class life in Atlanta: bicycles, a dog, allowances. But they were sickly aware of the racism that made white people shun them, that kept them out of most of the city’s parks and swimming pools, among other degradations.
Their father expected a lot from his children. He had a temper. He was a stern disciplinarian who spanked with a belt. Their mother was a calmer, sweeter, more stable presence. King would inherit qualities from both.
One of the stranger moments in King’s childhood, and thus in American history, occurred on Dec. 15, 1939. That was the night Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and other Hollywood stars converged on Atlanta for the premiere of “Gone With the Wind,” the highly anticipated film version of Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 novel.
“Gone With the Wind” was already controversial in the Black community for its placid and romantic depiction of slavery. To the dismay of some of his peers, King’s father allowed his church’s choir to perform at the premiere. It was only a movie, he thought, and not an entirely inaccurate one. Choir members wore slave costumes, their heads wrapped with cloth. “Martin Luther King Jr., dressed as a young slave, sat in the choir’s first row, singing along,” Eig writes.
King was a sensitive child. When things upset him, he twice tried to commit suicide, if halfheartedly, by leaping out of a second-story window of his house. (Both times, he wasn’t seriously hurt.) He was bright and skipped several grades in school. He thought he might be a doctor or a lawyer; the high emotion in church embarrassed him.
When he arrived in 1944 at nearby Morehouse College, one of the most distinguished all-Black, all-male colleges in America, he was 15 and short for his age. He picked up the nickname Runt. He majored in sociology. He read Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” and it was a vital early influence. He began to think about life as a minister, and he practiced his sermons in front of a mirror.
He was small, but he was a natty dresser and possessed a trim mustache and a dazzling smile. Women were already throwing themselves at him, and they would never stop doing so.
He attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he fell in love with and nearly married a white woman, but that would have ended any hope of becoming a minister in the South. Eig, who has also written artful biographies of Muhammad Ali and Lou Gehrig, describes how several young women attended King’s graduation from Crozer and how — as if in a scene from a Feydeau farce — each expected to be introduced to his parents as his fiancée.
King then pursued a doctorate at Boston University. (He nearly went to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland instead, a notion that is mind-bending to contemplate.) He was said to be the most eligible young Black man in the city.
In Boston he fell in love with Coretta Scott, he said, over the course of a single telephone call. She had attended Antioch College in Ohio and was studying voice at the New England Conservatory; she hoped to become a concert singer. Their love story is beautifully related. They were married in Alabama, at the Scott family’s home near Marion. They spent the first night of their marriage in the guest bedroom of a funeral parlor, because no local hotel would accommodate them.
The Kings moved to Montgomery, Ala., in 1954, when he took over as pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. A year later, a seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to white passengers on a Montgomery bus. Thus began the Montgomery bus boycott, an action that established the city as a crucible of the civil rights movement. The young pastor was about to rise to a great occasion, and to step into history.
“As I watched them,” he wrote about the men and women who participated in the long and difficult boycott, “I knew that there is nothing more majestic than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for their freedom and dignity.”
By this point in “King: A Life,” Eig has established his voice. It’s a clean, clear, journalistic voice, one that employs facts the way Saul Bellow said they should be employed, each a wire that sends a current. He does not dispense two-dollar words; he keeps digressions tidy and to a minimum; he jettisons weight, on occasion, for speed. He appears to be so in control of his material that it is difficult to second-guess him.
By the time we’ve reached Montgomery, King’s reputation has been flyspecked. Eig flies low over his penchant for plagiarism, in academic papers and elsewhere. (King was a synthesizer of ideas, not an original scholar.) His womanizing only got worse over the years. This is a very human, and quite humane, portrait.
Many readers will be familiar with what follows: the long fight in Montgomery, in which the world came to realize that this wasn’t merely about bus seats, and it wasn’t merely Montgomery’s problem. Later, the whole world was watching as Bull Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, sicced police dogs on peaceful protesters. In prison, King would compose what is now known as “The Letter From Birmingham Jail” on napkins, toilet paper and in the margins of newspapers. Later came the 1963 March on Washington and King’s partly improvised “I Have a Dream” speech.
During these years, King was imprisoned on 29 separate occasions. He never got used to it. He had shotguns fired into his family’s house. Bombs were found on his porch. Crosses were burned on his lawn. He was punched in the face more than once. In 1958, in Harlem, he was stabbed in the chest with a seven-inch letter opener. He was told that had he even sneezed before doctors could remove it, he might have died.
Eig is adept at weaving in other characters, and other voices. He makes it plain that King was not acting in a vacuum, and he traces the work of organizations like the N.A.A.C.P., CORE and SNCC, and of men like Thurgood Marshall, John Lewis, Julian Bond and Ralph Abernathy. He shows how King was too progressive for some, and vastly too conservative for others, Malcolm X central among them.
As this book moves into its final third, you sense the author echolocating between two other major biographies, Robert Caro’s multivolume life of Lyndon Johnson and Beverly Gage’s powerful recent biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime F.B.I. director.
King’s relationships with John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were complicated; his relationship with Johnson was even more so. King and Johnson were driven apart when King began to speak out against the Vietnam War, which Johnson considered a betrayal.
The details about Hoover’s relentless pursuit of King, via wiretaps and other methods, are repulsive. American law enforcement was more interested in tarring King with whatever they could dig up than in protecting him. Hoover tried to paint him as a communist; he wasn’t one.
King was under constant surveillance. Hoover’s F.B.I. agents bugged his hotel rooms and reported that he was having sex with many women, in many cities; they tried to drive him to suicide by threatening to release the tapes. King, in one bureau report, is said to have “participated in a sex orgy.” There is also an allegation, about which Eig is dubious, that King looked on during a rape. Complete F.B.I. recordings and transcripts are scheduled to be released in 2027.
Eig catches King in private moments. He had health issues; the stresses of his life aged him prematurely. He rarely got enough sleep, but he didn’t seem to need it. Writing about his demeanor in general, the writer Louis Lomax called King the “foremost interpreter of the Negro’s tiredness.”
King loved good Southern food and ate like a country boy. When the meal was especially delicious, he liked to eat with his hands. He argued, laughing, that utensils only got in the way.
Once, when his daughter skinned her knee by a swimming pool, he took a piece of fried chicken and jokingly pretended to apply it to the wound. “Let’s put some fried chicken on that,” he said. “Yes, a little piece of chicken, that’s always the best thing for a cut.”
Eig has read everything, from W.E.B Du Bois through Norman Mailer and Murray Kempton and Caro and Gage. He argues that we have sometimes mistaken King’s nonviolence for passivity. He doesn’t put King on the couch, but he considers the lifelong guilt King felt about his privileged upbringing, and how he was driven by competitiveness with his father, who had moral failures of his own.
He lingers on the cadences of King’s speeches, explaining how he learned to work his audience, to stretch and rouse them at the same time. He had the best material on his side, and he knew it. Eig puts it this way: “Here was a man building a reform movement on the most American of pillars: the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the American dream.”
Eig’s book is worthy of its subject.
Audio produced by Kate Winslett.
KING: A Life | By Jonathan Eig | Illustrated | 669 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $35
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