In October 1967, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., received an urgent telegram from two Black would-be politicians, A.W. Willis and Rev. James Lawson, desperately asking for help mobilizing Black voters to support their bid against two white incumbents in Memphis. Such appeals had become routine for King after urban America burst into flames in over 100 cities in 1967 alone.
King declined this invitation, but six months later, he received another invitation to Memphis, this time to march in solidarity with striking sanitation workers, who believed King’s presence might bring enough media attention to effectively pressure city officials toward establishing humane conditions for those who hauled trash in unsafe working environments. On April 4, 1968, days before the march, King was assassinated on the balcony of his motel room.
As Jonathan Eig details in his outstanding biography, “King: A Life,” fame made Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts often as much of a curse as a blessing. As Harry Belafonte wrote years later, King was a “genuinely modest man … who had little interest in the trappings of fame,” and his insecurity about the “recognition and power he’d accrued” led him, in Eig’s words, to be “riddled with doubt about his own worthiness.”
There was seemingly no end to sources of insecurity over the course of King’s work. After 1965, FBI Director J. Edger Hoover decided to focus the bureau’s counterintelligence program exclusively on preventing King, and several others, from becoming a “black Messiah” who could unite the various activist organizations, instructing FBI field offices to produce letters, memos, and documents to serve as counterintelligence measures, and to harass King with messages threatening to expose his marital infidelity. Anonymous letters recommended that King just “commit suicide.” By 1966, young activists openly defied King’s strategy of nonviolent direct action. King’s outspoken position against US involvement in the Vietnam War turned President Lyndon Johnson, who considered himself a “friend” to the movement, into an adversary. And King’s call for urban reform and anti-poverty activism in cities like Chicago and Cleveland fell flat with Black urban leaders.
While Eig chronicles the variety of obstacles King faced on his way to Memphis in 1968, the majority of the book shows who King really was behind the famous speeches and celebrity. Digging through thousands of hours of telephone transcripts and FBI wiretaps of conversations between King and other political and civil rights leaders, Eig offers an intimate, multidimensional biography. His reconstructed dialogues give the reader the feel of being in the room with King and other key players as they discuss the process behind decisions King made, or those who worked with him made, collectively. About the Montgomery bus boycott, he writes: “King had not sought a position of leadership. ‘I tried to discourage him,’ his mother, Alberta, said. ‘I asked him, didn’t he think it would be a wiser thing to let some of the older preachers or some of the older people who had worked with the NAACP and some of the organizations like that lead this?’... But her concerns passed. Step by step, the movement gained power, and her son became, as she put it, ‘so greatly involved.’”
Eig gives due credit to Black women, especially Joanne Robinson, the Black English professor at Alabama State College who — perhaps more so than anyone else — led the Montgomery movement, threatening to boycott the buses if elected officials did not modify the segregation ordinances to conform to what she and other Black people believed were unnecessary rules.
Most importantly, Eig weaves Coretta Scott King’s impressions of her famous husband throughout the book in ways that free her from the traditional housewife image depicted in Time magazine portraits. Coretta Scott was the intellectual equal of King, with a stage presence that rivaled her husband’s. When she met Martin Luther King Jr., she was a distinguished concert singer and stage performer. Yet she chose to support her husband in a traditional way — something essential to King’s endurance. Years later, Coretta remarked on “how much it meant to him for me to continue to be strong, and give him support, not only in terms of words, but actually feeling this way and being this way.”
In the last year of his life, King’s views on urban poverty and the Vietnam War tarnished his image among officials like LBJ and leaders who embraced Black Power. As Eig explains, King’s call for a “revolution of values” as an alternative to Black Power or the US role in South Vietnam did not play well with many former allies, or even his closest friends. While King admitted it was “probably politically unwise” to oppose the war, he believed he had been “morally wise.”
In Eig’s view, King’s position was no departure or contradiction. His detractors “didn’t understand the depth of his dedication, his sincerity of his religious calling.” King’s views about the US role in Vietnam “presented another dream, a bigger dream, a more challenging one than he had offered the masses in 1963 before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.” This vision of a “world house” demanded that people “think beyond race, class, and nation,” and recognize that God called on them to “[give] unconditional love to all mankind.”
“King: A Life” forces readers to view King as more than a martyr, icon, or saint — to see him for who he was, instead of who people thought he was, or wanted him to be.
KING: A Life
By Jonathan Eig
FSG, 841 pages, $16.99
Ousmane Power-Greene is the author of “The Confessions of Matthew Strong” and “Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle Against the Colonization Movement.”