“And under heavy attack by the FBI.”
All words meant to describe Dr. (Rev.) Martin Luther King, Jr., the focus of Jonathan Eig’s “King: A Life,” that released on May 16, 2023. Let me say first that the cinematic quality of Eig’s writing made for a rich, sensory experience while reading. I felt as Harry Potter must have when dropped into Dumbledore’s collected memories in the Pensieve.
The scene opened with the first time Dr. King spoke out as an activist from the pulpit on Dec. 5, 1955. He spoke against segregation and the inhumane treatment of Black people in the South and demanded their rights as citizens of the U.S. He reminded his audience they lived in an American democracy. If they were wrong, he said, then the Constitution is wrong, the Supreme Court is wrong, and God Almighty is wrong.
Eig would revisit this moment to show the development over the course of Dr. King’s life of his personal and spiritual philosophies.
But first, Eig took me to Stockbridge, Georgia, where I met Dr. King’s paternal grandparents, Delia and Jim. A generation away from slavery, they were sharecroppers who worked the land owned by white landowner. They lived in deplorable conditions for little pay as segregation, racism, violence, and cruelty continued on all over the South.
Jim King had been a frustrated father whose struggles to survive in an oppressive environment left him hopeless. He turned to alcohol. He had difficulty handling his temper. Delia turned to her faith in God. She was a strong Christian woman who influenced Dr. King’s father, Michael, to turn to God as well.
When his father abused his mother, young Michael wrestled Jim to the ground. His father threatened to kill him, so he fled to the woods. The next day, he left home at 14 to go to Atlanta for work. He lied about his age so he could work a job shoveling coal for a railroad company. He desired to preach the Gospel though. Michael would go on to marry a Baptist pastor’s daughter Alberta Williams. When his father-in-law died, Michael took over Ebenezer Baptist Church as their pastor. He changed his name to Martin Luther, the same as the Protestant reformer. The couple had three children: Alfred Daniel, or A.D., named for Alberta’s father; Christine; and Michael Jr., who later became Martin Luther as well.
Dr. King grew up in a Black community on Auburn Avenue. His father had been well-paid by the church, and his children had experienced some insulation from the effects of the “Jim Crow” South. Dr. King would later feel guilty that his family lived with more wealth than other Black families.
Now, his father “Daddy King” had his faults. He had affairs. He often would “thrash” his children when disciplining them. He even ordered his kids to dole out the punishment and whip each other. Dr. King’s mother understood his sensitive nature. She seemed to balance him, providing a strong, loving influence. Daddy King had high expectations for his children, and each one would feel that unbelievable pressure. Sources said these acts may have done much psychological damage.
As a child, Dr. King would experience racism the first time when he lost the friendship of a white boy he often played with after classes. The boys attended separate schools. When the white boy’s parents learned of their friendship, they told him they didn’t want him to play with Black children. Eig said this made Dr. King hate whites for a time until he understood the source.
As a young man, Dr. King would experience the differences between the way Black people were treated in the North and South. He rode the train each summer to work on a tobacco farm in Connecticut. He would start his journey in the South, and the train had this curtain separating the races. When they came to Washington, D.C., Black people could move freely. They enjoyed integration for the first time in the North. The North wasn’t free of racism, but it was “Jim Crow” free.
Dr. King moved into taking an active role in the civil rights movement when asked by one of his congregants, Jo Ann Robinson, who led the bus boycotts with Rosa Parks and others. Eig provided mini biographies of the men and women who fought against discrimination and inequality alongside Dr. King. Some names of these early civil rights leaders I recognized, while others were new to me: A. Philip Randolph; Whitney Young, Jr.; James Farmer, Jr.; Roy Wilkins; John Lewis; and Dr. King’s best friend, fellow Baptist pastor, Ralph Abernathy. Eig also gave equal attention to the roles women played in the movement: Claudette Colvin; Rosa Parks; Ella Baker; Septima Clark; Fannie Lou Hamer, as well as Dr. King’s wife Coretta Scott King.
Though they didn’t always agree with Dr. King, each activist would lead the way to fighting discrimination and inequality. They would demand equal voting rights, education, housing, and employment opportunities. They worked to end segregation, violence, and poverty in the Southern and Northern U.S. cities.
During this time, activists would form new organizations, some of which exist today, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), led by Dr. King. They worked to integrate buses, lunch counters and business. They helped register Black people to vote in elections. They worked for better living conditions, employment, and education.
Dr. King knew as an activist he would face harrowing circumstances. He went to jail often. He was injured during some protests. And he courted death. Eig talked about the fear of death that Dr. King wrestled with at his kitchen table one night. And yet he turned away safer opportunities that would have taken him away from the center of the storm. Dr. King had graduated from Morehouse and then went to Boston University to complete his PhD. He could have gone back to pastoring a congregation, or he could have become a professor. Many universities offered him positions. No one would fault him. He had so many connections all over the country and overseas.
But he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. After that, he felt even more pressure to continue to lead. At times his body and mind were exhausted to the point he sought medical attention for rest.
As I looked on undetected, I saw our Nation’s past and argued with people long dead, such as J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. He was obsessed with unearthing communists. One of Dr. King’s advisors Stanley Levison used to have ties to communism, so Hoover sought permission based on that fact for the FBI to wiretap Dr. King. The FBI gained the signature and go-ahead from Robert Kennedy, then attorney general. They would listen in on conversations Dr. King held with Levison, another advisor, Bayard Rustin, at friends’ homes and in his hotel rooms. They listened in to stay ahead of his protest efforts probably more so than communism. Hoover wanted to get some dirt on him, anything to try to knock Dr. King down, to discredit him. They even considered replacing him altogether with another leader.
Even after President Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy were no longer in power, Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson would get memos from Hoover, who often embellished or straight-out lied about the contents of calls. He later tried to distance himself from the wiretapping when the story finally broke.
Dr. King unwittingly played into the FBI’s hands (or ears) in some ways. He wasn’t perfect. He had multiple, on-going affairs. The FBI released new reports, which Eig used in this biography, but he said they have unreleased documents that won’t be available until 2027.
The FBI should have protected Dr. King, but instead stalked him, trying to thwart his every attempt to right the wrongs done to Black people in the U.S. He was a pacifist, not as a “commie.” Dr. King would protest the war in Vietnam, which just kept him on their radar. I wanted to warn Dr. King of the hidden dangers surrounding him, but he mentioned his early death often enough, I think he knew.
Dr. King would lose followers and gain critics as the ‘60s progressed. He watched his dream for America fade into a nightmare, he said, especially in his time spent in Chicago. The U.S. had a resistance to change in general that Dr. King would see as worse in the North than the South in many ways. He seemed to change his stance on the “Black power” movement, inspired by Malcolm X, not because he agreed with violence or separatism. He understood their motivation, as he said in his speech, “The Other America”:
“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity.” –
“King: A Life” reads like an epic novel and Shakespearean tragedy. Eig is new to me, and I’m already a fan. He’s an excellent writer. One of my favorite authors Joyce Carol Oates likened his biography on Muhammed Ali to reading a novel. Agreed! Eig used creative writing elements to bring to life Dr. King’s story. He presented material from previously unpublished sources, such as an autobiography from Daddy King, newly released FBI recordings, as well as interviews with people still with us today who knew Dr. King well. Eig wrote each chapter in a way that made reading this biography like a journey I wanted to take, just without the dry, drudgery of reading a history book. Each chapter connected to others in time, but they also could stand alone as a magazine article.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publishers at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux for the opportunity to read this advance copy of Jonathan Eig’s “King: A Life.” Please read Part 2 for more on “King: A Life.”