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Richard LischerAugust 17, 2023
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an undated photo. (OSV News photo/CNS file)

Martin Luther King Jr. once characterized the times in which he lived as “life’s restless sea.” His own turbulent voyage on that sea has been well documented. We know its ports of call by heart: the Montgomery bus boycott; failure in Albany, Ga.; triumph in Birmingham, Ala.; “I Have a Dream”; Selma, Ala.; Chicago; Lyndon B. Johnson and Vietnam; the Poor People’s Campaign; death at 39; “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” They are set in stone on the Tidal Basin and inscribed in the American memory. These are the chapters of every King biography—and the challenge to every biographer.

Kingby Jonathan Eig

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
688p $35

Jonathan Eig’s new biography, King: A Life, is more than up to the challenge. It will take its place among the foremost of the many treatments of King. Billed as the first major biography of King in decades, it follows Taylor Branch’s magisterial 3,000-page trilogy, completed in 2006. It benefits from the revelatory contributions of historian David Garrow, whose use of F.B.I. records through the Freedom of Information Act opened new windows into the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

Eig has probed F.B.I. sources, telephone recordings and unpublished memoirs in order to produce a moving, and in places beautiful, account of King’s life.

Eig has probed recently released F.B.I. sources, telephone recordings and unpublished memoirs in order to produce a moving, and in places beautiful, account of King’s life. His biography reads King’s life as a single story with its own inevitability of plot and character. It is driven by the expected events, of course, but even more by the character of its protagonist. It displays the complexities of a public life whose private spaces were hidden from view. Eig narrates the mysteries of King largely without theory or explanation, as if to say, “Reader, you decide.”

His protagonist first appears as a talented, smooth young man who is making his way in academia and among friends by means of a charming personality. Young King is so intent on pleasing his authoritarian father that he enters the Baptist ministry. He is so intent on satisfying his professors that he plagiarizes his papers. He is so good with words, especially the words of others which he skillfully adapts to his own style, that he pleases everyone who hears him. Scholars have attempted to rationalize his practice of borrowing. Eig simply refers to it as a “bad habit” or an “old habit.”

Eig does not attempt to shield the reader from King’s “habits.” But he also displays a depth and solidity to King that confounds our understanding of the habits themselves. Suddenly propelled to the leadership of the civil rights movement at age 26, King maintains absolute fidelity to his assigned role. Whenever he is tempted to please or accommodate others—whether sheriffs, judges or his own father—he refuses. Whenever an easy way out or an inauthentic choice beckons, he invariably chooses the hard way of principled resistance.

In Birmingham, he breaks a judicial injunction against marching, puts on his overalls and leads the charge. Despite a lifelong aversion to conflict, he develops a high tolerance for disorder and makes social conflict his bread and butter. He soldiers on in dangerous situations despite multiple death threats. He believes in something called “America” but stubbornly resists the American fetish of anti-communism and flatly refuses to abandon colleagues with communist ties. He burns his bridges to his greatest political benefactor, L.B.J., by condemning Johnson’s war. It is a decision for which he will be condemned by every civil rights organization except his own and by every major news outlet in the country, including The New York Times.

The principles by which King fought and served came from another region of his life. When asked why he opposed the war in Vietnam, he consistently cited his vocation as a minister of the Gospel. He was formed by the raw spiritual power that pulsed through his father’s church. He was formed a second time by the Christian personalist theology he learned at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University, where he earned a doctorate in systematic theology. At home with sermonic language, he cast the civil rights movement in the mirror of biblical events and characters. His fundamental positions on violence, freedom, human dignity and hope were birthed in the sanctuaries and classrooms of his younger days.

With such commitments, he should not have been perceived as a threat to the nation.

At the insistence of F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover, Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized a tap on King’s home and office telephones. Taps were already in place on the phones of King’s closest advisors, Stanley Levison, Bayard Rustin and others. Hoover would later install an F.B.I. informant in King’s Atlanta office. His ostensible motive was to track communist infiltration of the civil rights movement. The taps never revealed a communist influence on King or his organization. What they did reveal, however, was something more salacious—and, to Hoover, the Kennedys and L.B.J., entertaining. They documented yet another contradiction.

King’s network of extramarital affairs is not new information. What is new in Eig’s book is the extent of his sexual contacts and their centrality in the routines of his private life. These increasingly dangerous liaisons became meat and drink to Hoover in his effort to discredit King and destroy his movement. Sixty years on, they have become the routine matter of King biographies.

King suffered from 13 years of unrelenting conflict. The word we would use today is trauma.

Hoover’s campaign to ruin King did not alter his public role, but it did break his spirit. The revelation of King’s sexual activities may turn out to be the most controversial element in this book. But there is worse. Most of what we have of King’s private life comes courtesy of one of the most shameful programs of domestic espionage in American history: a fanatical attempt to subvert racial justice in the United States. What was done to King and his movement was not an example of governmental “overreach” or the “dirty tricks” that would come into vogue a decade later. That we can know word-for-word what a national leader said on any given day on any given telephone call is a legacy of something far more comprehensive—and sinister.

Hoover’s efforts shadow the final third of the biography, as does their effect, which was King’s worsening depression. Sometimes called “fatigue” or “exhaustion,” for which King was repeatedly hospitalized, its clinical name is depression. Its symptoms are everywhere in King’s final years. His friend Ralph David Abernathy attempted to minister to it; his staff worried and quietly worked around it. It marred his final sermons with uncharacteristic fatalism and maudlin fixations on death, including the famous “Drum Major Instinct” sermon in which he fantasized about his own funeral.

King suffered from 13 years of unrelenting conflict. The word we would use today is trauma. By the end of his mission, he was buffeted by violence in the cities, conflict over Vietnam, desertion by his allies, the accelerating presence of Black Power and his growing irrelevance to America’s racial conflict. But none of these bore down upon him—and into him—like Hoover’s efforts to desecrate his person.

Eig notes that in the unpublished memoir by King’s wife, Coretta, she refers to her husband as “a guilt ridden” man. Throughout his public life, he was vexed by privileges not shared by the majority of his people; consequently, he refused a salary, drove a modest car and lived in a Black, middle-class neighborhood. But this other life, the private one, brought him low.

In this context, we must also remark on the strength and dignity demonstrated by Coretta Scott King. No single chapter is devoted to her, but her resilience—and resentment—is woven throughout the story. From the beginning she understands herself as capable of an important, policy-related role in the movement. But aside from her performance at musical concerts, she is usually relegated to background support and care of the children. Eig remarks that she bore up under her husband’s infidelity perhaps because she understood the enormous personal and symbolic importance of her support.

The day after her husband’s death, she flew to Memphis to retrieve his body. Three days later, she returned and led 40,000 marchers through the city in support of striking sanitation workers. On Mother’s Day, 38 days after her husband’s assassination, she marched with 3,000 people in support of the Poor People’s Campaign. On June 19 at the Lincoln Memorial she said the time had come to form “a solid block of woman power.” Picking up her husband’s burden, she added, “Love is the only force that can destroy hate.”

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