In his Martin Luther King Jr. biography, “King: A Life,” author Jonathan Eig explores the wholeness of King as a person. That includes describing his determination, courage and commitment, but also examining his flaws.
“He was greater with those flaws,” Eig said in an interview Saturday at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum with museum President Terri Lee Freeman as part of the museum’s commemoration of the Martin Luther King Holiday. King is today treated as an icon and a kind of deity in the popular imagination, but Eig emphasizes that understanding King as a man and exploring what shaped him helps us better appreciate his impact and legacy.
“I wanted to write a much more intimate book,” Eig said, contrasting his work with books by Taylor Branch and David Garrow that examined the civil rights movement with King as the central figure.
Eig re-examines how King approached his work in the movement and writes in detail about how he was influenced by those close to him. He writes about King’s friendships and provides specifics about how those friendships evolved throughout his life. This information came from sources that hadn’t previously been examined.
I’m always drawn to learning more about King and have an endless fascination with how he arrived at his place in history, which is what drew me to this author talk. He will always be at the center of debates about whether people shape history or history and circumstances shape people.
The comprehensive biography is the first to include recently declassified FBI files and recently discovered audio recordings by King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, Eig said. In all, his six years of research for the book included reviews of thousands of pages of documents. But he said his interviews with hundreds of people close to King and with other contemporaries are at the heart of it.
He also used information from White House phone recordings, personal letters, unaired TV footage and other previously unpublished materials.
Eig talked Saturday about efforts to seize on King’s private life and associations in the civil rights movement to discredit and silence him. J. Edgar Hoover led the FBI in such efforts and made clear he wanted to dismantle the movement.
A week before the 1963 March on Washington, Hoover received an agency memo that Communist agents had failed to make inroads with any major civil rights organizations. Hoover wrote a reply dismissing that finding and proclaimed that Communists were exploiting the movement and Black Americans.
So William Sullivan, head of the Domestic Intelligence Division, made a full reversal to appease Hoover. Sullivan later testified before Congress that he and the men of his unit revised their findings to avoid being transferred or fired. In the ensuing memo, King is described as “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism.”
During the months that followed, King would take his place on the world stage, winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Hoover was outraged, and the FBI used personal information, including evidence of extramarital affairs gathered through surveillance, to try to blackmail him.
Then the bureau sent King a recording that included a message urging him to commit suicide.
With one of the most powerful institutions in the nation aligned against him, King was not deterred — or silenced.
Eig makes clear King’s willingness to sacrifice himself and to endure criticism and complaints from many different directions was bolstered by those closest to him. Just as he wouldn’t be dissuaded, neither would they.
Hearing Eig’s words, I’m reminded that Americans from many walks of life who cared about justice also stood up for the principles King represented and took a stand against those who opposed those principles.
Early in my career, I worked as a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. Once in a while, on the elevator at work, I got to greet Eugene Patterson, the newspaper’s editor. He would say hello and turn his relaxed smile my way. That, alone, meant a lot.
Patterson was the crusading editorial page editor, columnist and editor of the Atlanta Constitution in the 1960s. He and Ralph McGill, his predecessor at the newspaper, are two towering figures in the history of U.S. journalism.
At Hoover’s direction, the FBI approached McGill and Patterson with the information collected through surveillance. The intention was for them to publish the information as the FBI sought to disgrace King.
They said no. They knew Hoover’s intent, and acting in any way as an accomplice was beneath them as journalists and as men. They understood what King and the civil rights movement meant to the future of their country and to its progress.
King’s upbringing and the influence of his parents, Martin Luther King Sr. and Alberta Williams King, placed him in an exalted position compared to many of his peers in the ministry, Eig said. The elder King was senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church for more than four decades. Alberta King’s father, A.D. Williams, was Ebenezer’s pastor for more than 25 years. His family’s stature shielded him from some of the harsh realities of the Jim Crow South, Eig said during his interview with Freeman.
“King wasn’t bruised by the Southern racism the way the others [working in the civil rights movement] were,” Eig said.
He started school early, and was skipped ahead more than one grade before graduation. He entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at the age of 15, where he was remembered as charming and having a great sense of humor, Eig said.
Minister and civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, King’s closest friend and confidant, didn’t attend Morehouse as an undergraduate, but he got to know King then and admired his talent for preaching while a student. He also recalled being stood up by a date to attend a concert whom he saw at said concert with King, Eig said.
By the time King began his full-time career in the ministry in Montgomery, Alabama, he recognized that Black preachers bore the responsibility of working on behalf of the Black community more broadly. But he was 26 years old and uncertain about assuming the role as leading spokesman of the bus boycott. Once he reluctantly accepted, he suffered a panic attack preparing a speech to announce his intentions, Eig said.
He moved ahead, embracing the idea that “Black people are the ones to teach America about democracy,” Eig said.
He was also greatly influenced by his wife’s ideas about and experience with activism. While a student at Antioch College in Ohio, she participated in direct-action campaigns on behalf of Black residents, experience that King did not yet have, Eig said.
Yet, Eig argues, King was the product of a male-dominated approach to leadership and to roles in the church. So, “he doesn’t appreciate the role of women in the movement.”
Eig pointed out that Ella Baker, the brilliant organizer and strategist and once acting director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King led, left after conflicts with male colleagues. Andrew Young, one of the most influential members of King’s inner circle, would write that “The Baptist church had no tradition of women in independent leadership roles, and the result was dissatisfaction all around.”
“One of our great activists had this blind spot when it came to women,” Eig said.
Some of his colleagues also noted what they saw as contradictions between his stated commitment to nonviolent resistance and the way he lived. King was known to keep a gun at home, and armed guards patrolled his front porch.
King sought to separate himself from matters related to electoral politics. President John F. Kennedy warned King about his associations with advisors and colleagues branded by Hoover’s FBI as Communists, Eig said. These included attorney Stanley Levinson and Bayard Rustin, the lead organizer of the March on Washington. Kennedy was concerned his reelection prospects would suffer if he was seen as aligned with a movement that included Communists.
King largely disregarded Kennedy’s advice, Eig said, and King always approached his work as a moral leader and a preacher, Eig said.
Over time, the desire of Americans to have King’s leadership, message and legacy align with their own views has led to mischaracterizations of what he believed and who he was, Eig said, citing what has become known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, which King delivered at the 1963 March on Washington. The American public has come to remember the speech as only a call for brotherhood and racial harmony.
“The agenda was economic reform,” Eig said, explaining that the first half of the speech, containing economic demands, is what King wrote. The second half of the speech was improvised and drawn largely from speeches he had delivered previously. In that first half, King called out America’s failure to ensure economic opportunity for its Black citizens. He demanded economic redress for those past failures.
Another example, Eig said, was when King was portrayed in a Playboy magazine interview as condemning Malcolm X and accusing him of promoting racial violence. Eig said he reviewed the interview transcript and found that what King actually said was that he disagreed with some of the rhetoric and philosophy of the the Nation of Islam, the organization Malcolm X represented, but didn’t refer to Malcolm X directly.
Eig reminds us how King never strayed from the idea that real change requires risk and sacrifice. King always preached that a committed life is the only life worth living, that everyone has the potential for greatness because everyone can serve. Eig reminds us that a man who contributed to building a greater country didn’t have to be perfect.
Efforts by anyone to remake King’s contributions and viewpoints do a disservice to him and to the the rest of us. He was a real person — imperfect, at times conflicted, at times troubled. He never claimed saintliness. But faced with unending violence, threats and condemnation, he attacked injustices that seemed insurmountable. He was a true revolutionary and martyr, and that’s plenty.
Mark Williams is The Baltimore Banner’s Opinion Editor.