Book review: Jonathan Eig’s radical Life of Martin Luther King

In a new biography, Jonathan Eig draws King as a deep thinker, a brilliant strategist, and a committed radical, albeit one beset by personal demons.


Image : Credit/AFP

Far from the sanitised Dr Martin Luther King Jr that is passed down to us today, Jonathan Eig shows us what King was in his own time – “one of the most brutally divisive figures in American history.” Eig’s King: The Life of Martin Luther King is described as “the first major biography in decades of Martin Luther King Jr – and the first to include recently declassified FBI files” – and seeks to “recover the real man from the gray mist of hagiography.”

Dr Martin Luther King Jr was an African-American Christian minister, activist, and political philosopher and one of the most prominent leaders in the US civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968. A black church leader, King advanced civil rights for people of colour in the United States through the use of nonviolent civil disobedience against the racist Jim Crow laws and other forms of legalised discrimination prevalent across the US.

And while the story may be familiar, Eig – known for incisive portraits of black US sports heroes Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali – brings his usual narrative flair and exhaustive research to the task. He convincingly draws King as a deep thinker, a brilliant strategist, and a committed radical, albeit one beset by personal demons and hidden doubts.

Crucible of the civil rights struggle

The struggles of those troubled times are richly drawn. In the racist state of Alabama, we are plunged alongside a young King into the dramatic events of the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott.

Montgomery’s Jim Crow laws kept black and white people apart in schools, shops and restaurants but shared buses were inevitable. The seating in the buses was segregated so that the front ten seats, two benches facing each other followed by a single row facing forward, were reserved for white passengers, while 10 rows in the back were for black passengers.

The black passenger who famously took exception to this arrangement was an unlikely radical – a petite, gentle, serene black seamstress called Rosa Parks.

In fact, Eig explains that Parks was not the first woman to object to giving up her bus seat to a white passenger. That was Viola White, a black woman who had been beaten, arrested and convicted for her troubles in 1944. But it was Parks’ arrest that hit the headlines and sparked a bus boycott throughout the city.

Eig’s account gives centre stage to King’s brave leadership of the bus boycott and the famed oratory that allowed him to stand out from his fellow activists.

As president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, King addressed a church congregation with a rousing sermon which climaxed with the words: “And we are not wrong… if we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong then the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie. Love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

At just 26 years old, King had found the unique voice which would ring out in some of the most famous speeches in US history – a mix of political agitation and gospel that made the radical sound reasonable, perhaps even inevitable. The world would change. All men would be free. Their time had come, he promised.

A national figure emerges

The bus boycott proved victorious and in January 1957 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was inaugurated, electing King as its first president.

As one of its first major campaigns, King led the Albany Movement. Albany, Georgia was a virulently segregationist city, and the SCLC moved into action, winning some concessions, including the desegregation of public transport.

For years, the SCLC was at the heart of the civil rights movement. On 28 August 1963 it was central to one of the most remarkable demonstrations for human rights which propelled King into international recognition – the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

As well as offering an unparalleled example of King’s mastery of oratory, Eig shows that the march was also an enormous logistical and organisational triumph – more than 2,000 buses, 21 special trains, 10 chartered aircraft, and uncounted autos converged on the city in the morning and departed without difficulty by nightfall. Between 200,000 and 300,000 protestors marched peacefully.

King’s national stature was growing. By the end of the year Time magazine had named King as the “Man of the Year”, with his photograph featured on the front cover – the first time a black person had ever been recognised by Time.

But as King’s popularity grew with the white population and presidents from John F. Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson sought his counsel on race relations, he also gained powerful enemies. Federal Bureau of Investigations director J. Edgar Hoover, convinced that King was a radical communist agitator, ordered FBI agents to investigate him for possible communist ties, spy on his personal life and tap his phones as part of a secret COINTEL programme to “neutralise” what the FBI called “black nationalist hate groups” and other dissident groups. Hoover’s hatred towards King would persist beyond the latter’s assassination.

But as well as a growing list of external enemies, King also faced private demons – emerging as a courageous but often emotionally troubled human being who demanded peaceful protest for his movement but was rarely at peace with himself.

The book casts new light on the King family’s origins as well as his complex relationships with his wife, who he relied upon but cheated on continually, his father, and his fellow activists through periods of immense personal and political turmoil.  

Eig acknowledges that “the portrait here may trouble some people.” But, he writes “those closest to King saw his flaws all along and understood that his power grew from his ability to grapple with contradiction, just as his biblical heroes did.”

Global renown

In examining King’s relationship with Africa this book is lacking in detail even though, in March 1957, alongside African-American leaders such as A. Philip Randolph, Adam Clayton Powell, and Ralph Bunche, King was formally invited by Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah to attend the independence ceremony for Ghana. King also went on to Nigeria.

According to a recently discovered recording of an interview, posted by Shuttleworth Foundation fellow, Sean Jacobs, King stated:

“There is quite a bit of interest in the US. African leaders in general, and African people in particular are greatly concerned about the struggle here and quite familiar with what has taken place.

“I just returned from Africa a little more than a month ago and I had the opportunity to talk with most of the major leaders of the new independent countries of Africa, and also leaders in countries that are moving toward independence. And I think all of them agree that in the US we must solve this problem of racial injustice if we expect to maintain our leadership in the world and if we expect to maintain a moral voice in a world that is two thirds colour… they are familiar with [conditions of black people in the US] and they are saying in no uncertain terms that racism and colonialism must go for they see the two are based on the same principle, a sort of contempt for life, and a contempt for human personality.”

Still, in his own time, King’s enormous contribution to global peace was acknowledged. In October 1964 King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality and oppression through nonviolent resistance.

Days before he received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, in a major address in Londo on his way to Norway, King spoke about segregation, the fight for civil rights and his support for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. 

International renown did not dampen his innate radicalism. Towards the end of his life, King gave full vent to his internationalism and anti-militarism in his repeated denunciations of the disastrous war in Vietnam, and proved a potent critic of materialism in his tirades at US poverty.

And while Eig could perhaps have made more of King’s Africa links and thoughts on the continent’s struggle against colonialism, the book rightly places King as a revolutionary figure who broke new ground in the struggle for US civil rights.

By doing so, Eig offers a gripping insight into the greatness of his character, the generosity of his vision, and the steely ambition that underlay his attempts to lead the black community to what in his last speech before his assassination he poignantly called “the Promised Land” – a US defined by racial harmony that has yet to fully emerge.

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