Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

King, the Life of Martin Luther King: Strong on narrative, but light on analysis

This new biography is a pleasure to read and is likely to remain the best starting point to learn about the civil rights leader for many years to come

King: The Life of Martin Luther King
King: The Life of Martin Luther King
Author: Jonathan Eig
ISBN-13: 978-1471181009
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Guideline Price: £25

Of the national memorials in Washington, DC dedicated to people, all but one commemorate white presidents. The exception is the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, which opened in 2011. Though controversial in his lifetime, King is today widely accepted as a national hero. But in the act of sanctification, much of what he actually stood for has been forgotten.

There is more reason than ever to learn about King’s life at a time of white nationalist resurgence and persistent institutional racism highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement. Jonathan Eig’s compulsively readable new biography could hardly be more timely. Though it does not contain many new revelations, the book is the most accessible and balanced biography of this great man.

King was groomed from the start for a future role as a racial leader. His father was the son of sharecroppers and the grandchild of slaves who at the age of 14 left for Atlanta. He was determined to make a name for himself both literally (he changed his name from Michael to Martin Luther) and figuratively.

One of the few routes to prominence for an African-American at the time lay in the church, which was a central institution for black people in the Jim Crow South. King Sr married the daughter of the pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and succeeded him when he died in 1931. To his first son, born in 1929, he passed along his ambitions and strong sense of racial injustice. But King Sr was also a domineering father who often beat his children. It was young Martin’s mother, Alberta, who gave him warmth and gentleness.


White southerners weren’t about to dismantle segregation without a fight. To kill Jim Crow a mass movement was needed

As the son of a prominent preacher, King enjoyed a relatively privileged upbringing. He entered Morehouse College at age 15, where he was versed in the social gospel that urged Christians to seek social justice in the here and now. He was also told that the few African-Americans lucky enough to attend university had a duty to use their positions to advance the progress of their race. King followed his father in becoming a preacher not because he felt a particular spiritual calling but because it would give him a position of community leadership, enabling him to achieve broader social goals.

After university, King went to the north, earning a PhD in Theology from Boston University in 1955. This education in speaking to northern white audiences would prove crucial to his future success.

Still, he became a leader of the civil rights movement only by happenstance. In 1954, he was appointed minister at the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama. That same year the US supreme court ruled that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. But white southerners weren’t about to dismantle segregation without a fight. To kill Jim Crow a mass movement was needed. And that movement began in Montgomery. At the age of 26, King was the right person in the right place.

On December 1st, 1955, local activist Rosa Parks famously refused to surrender her seat on a segregated bus. When she was arrested, African-Americans decided to boycott the buses until they were desegregated. Though they depended on the buses to transport them to their jobs, they walked long distances and organised car pools. Nearly every African-American in Montgomery observed the boycott, which lasted 381 days. The intransigence of Montgomery’s leaders ensured that the boycott became more than just a local struggle against segregated transport but a national campaign against the Jim Crow system.

It was this grassroots resistance that thrust King into the limelight. As civil rights leader Ella Baker once remarked, it was “the movement that made Martin rather than Martin making the movement”. King became the leader of the Montgomery protest because, as a recent arrival, he had made no enemies. But then all of his abilities came to the fore. He could not only unite fractious forces but was an exceptional speaker and a charismatic spokesman in the mass media. He could negotiate with political leaders, yet was always quick to learn from rank-and-file activists. King never forgot that his power came from being the head of a mass movement.

After Montgomery, King was fully dedicated to the civil rights struggle. He knew that he was risking his life. His home in Montgomery had been bombed and shot at and he received constant threats. After one such threat, delivered by telephone late at night, King discovered an inner voice that sustained him, a personal relationship with Jesus who insisted that he carry on. “History has thrust something upon me,” said King, “from which I cannot turn away.” In the sermon he delivered the night before he died, he declared himself lucky to live during his era when the “masses of people” were demanding their freedom.

King didn’t do all of this alone. Not only did he rely on mass support at the grassroots level, but several people close to him also provided essential support

King did not head all the protests that would occur in the subsequent years, but his campaigns in Birmingham in 1963 and Selma in 1965 would prove essential to the passage of civil rights and voting rights legislation that ended Jim Crow. After 1965, King became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam war. He campaigned against institutionalised racism and economic inequality until his assassination in 1968 in Memphis, where he had appeared to support a strike by the city’s sanitation workers.

He didn’t do all of this alone. Not only did he rely on mass support at the grassroots level, but several people close to him also provided essential support. Rev Ralph Abernathy, King’s closest companion, always tried to get arrested with King because he knew how traumatic jail was for his friend. King acquired several key advisers and ghostwriters, notably the pacifist Bayard Rustin and the lawyer Stanley Levison. Ella Baker was a crucial organiser for his organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), though as a woman she never received the power nor the credit she deserved.

As Eig makes clear, most of all King relied on his wife, Coretta Scott King. With her husband rarely at home, she raised their three children and maintained the house nearly on her own. She put aside her own career ambitions as a singer to be a wife and mother. Her husband, like most men of the time, expected that. But Coretta was a civil rights leader in her own right. She was more committed to the cause than Martin when they met in 1952. She frequently stood in for Martin at events, provided him with crucial advice, and shared his fearlessness in the face of near-constant threats to their lives.

Coretta also endured her husband’s innumerable affairs. He had a long-standing relationship with one SCLC staffer, Dorothy Cotton, who some in the organisation referred to as his “second wife”. Staying with Coretta at a friend’s house in New York City in advance of the 1963 March on Washington, he called four different paramours. King’s womanising was the height of hypocrisy for a Baptist preacher. Most importantly, it ran the constant risk of exposure that would seriously damage his public image and the movement which he led.

King’s behaviour was so reckless that one wonders if some part of him actually wanted to be caught as it might relieve him of the terrible burdens of his leadership, which clearly took a great toll on him.

The FBI failed to get journalists to report on his supposed Communist ties and his marital affairs

The reason we know so much about King’s extramarital affairs is that the FBI was listening in on his phone calls. The wiretapping began in 1962 because of King’s relationship with Levison, a past member of the Communist Party. But FBI leaders were also frightened by the “social revolution” that King was leading and made it their stated goal to “completely discredit” him. They failed to get journalists to report on his marital affairs and supposed communist ties. Their clumsy effort to get King to commit suicide by mailing him tapes of him with women in his hotel rooms also failed. But they succeeded in adding to his already considerable stress and in helping poison his relationship with President Lyndon Johnson.

King: The Life of Martin Luther King is strong on narrative but light on analysis. It reflects the strengths of its author, a professional biographer but not a trained historian. It is a pleasure to read. Eig writes with a great economy of style. He has an eye for the telling detail and for setting the scene. He effectively employs novelistic techniques such as shifts in perspective. His account benefits from frequent direct quotations.

But despite his exhaustive research, we learn little that we didn’t know already. King’s story has been told so many times that it is hard to say anything new. We didn’t need a new book to remind us of how significant a figure he was or that he was a flawed and complicated man. Eig rightly stressed the radicalness of King’s vision: he sought not simply formal civil rights, but full racial equality, and opposed poverty and militarism as well as racism. But Eig is hardly the first to point this out.

Historians in recent decades have contested the King-centric depiction of the civil rights movement that characterises most public discourse. They have stressed the actions of local activists, not just national leaders. They have insisted on an expanded timeframe beyond the years of King’s prominence to understand the “long civil rights movement”. And they have placed the African-American civil rights movement in a transnational context, linked to contemporaneous struggles for racial equality and decolonisation throughout the globe.

To his credit, Jonathan Eig incorporates these insights into his narrative where possible. But he can only do so up to a point while making King centre of the story.

Everyone who cares about social justice still has much to learn from King’s words and example

We will never see the likes of Martin Luther King again. Not only was he an extraordinary individual, but he lived at a very specific moment in time. The Black Lives Matter movement has moved away from the form of leadership he represented – a single charismatic male – to something more decentralised and group-centric. But everyone who cares about social justice still has much to learn from King’s words and example. For those wishing to understand his life, not just the legend, Eig’s book is likely to remain the best starting point for many years to come.

Further reading

Before the publication of King: A Life, David Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Bearing the Cross (1986) was widely considered the best biography of King. It is more informative than Eig’s book if not quite as readable. Those seeking a shorter and more analytical biography should consult Adam Fairclough’s Martin Luther King Jr (1995). Finally, those interested in King may be best off to start with his own writings. Why We Can’t Wait (1964), recently reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic, tells the story of his 1963 Birmingham campaign. It also captures King at a key moment when he was expanding beyond the struggle against racial segregation to advance his fullest vision for social justice. There is no better way to know about King than through his own words.