Lucid look at the light and shade of Martin Luther King’s brief life

A King worth focusing on. Here we have Martin Luther King in all his heavenly gloriousness, and with all his earthly flaws, in Jonathan Eig’s impressive and lucid biography on the totem of the American civil rights movement, and one of the enduring symbols of peaceful protest.

In KING: The Life of Martin Luther King, Eig confidently sets out the activist’s eternal quest for moral probity from society, from himself; contrasting with light and shade the struggles of his short lifetime.

Here we have a man who came from a comfortable, educated background, and yet reached out to the poorest and disenfranchised in society and felt their pain. A man who heard the voice of God and decided at a young age to preach, but who also liked to shoot pool, drink and smoke, and had a weakness for women other than his wife (whom he loved dearly nonetheless).

A man who was born a second-class citizen in the richest, most powerful country in the world, and yet through his moral integrity had access to the US presidents of his day. A man who spoke with such arresting grace that the English language was like a deck of cards in the hands of a croupier, and yet was often found to have resorted to plagiarism in his writings.

A man whose values were based on love, justice, and equality, and yet who was distrusted and despised with such spiteful paranoia by the head of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, that he was spied on for most of his life and smeared as being a communist patsy. A man who faced-down daily danger from racists and bigots, and yet disliked conflict and confrontation.

Biographies on King have been written before. But it is likely that one will be required for each new generation until all classified government documents on King are released, so Eig’s book is welcome. (It’s understood the FBI, which wire-tapped King for most of his life, still have transcripts and recordings on him under seal until 2027).

Other material continues to come to light, too, at a time when many of King’s contemporaries are finishing their long march through life. Eig’s book adds poignancy to the death of one of King’s closest comrades, Harry Belafonte, aged 96, just last month.

​There’s enough new material here to make it essential reading: Eig includes recently released FBI documents, and makes use of audiotapes, for the first time, recorded by King’s wife Coretta, a remarkable figure in her own right, just months after her husband’s death as she worked on her first memoir.

Coretta’s voice is an invaluable counterpoint to ideas of idealisation of King. She sacrificed ambitions in music and education to play the role of a minister’s wife and was aware of King’s numerous infidelities.

Eig also had access to an unpublished memoir by King’s father, Martin Luther Sr, and thousands of documents of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which coordinated protest groups in the United States’ south. The author, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, also interviewed more than 200 people.

Eig’s restrained, sober reporter’s style allows the story to roll, and he thankfully never veers into counterfactual history or speculation, which can embitter the flavour of a biography like tasting granules with each sip of good coffee. King’s entire life compels, and Eig delivers with energy and exactness; at times it feels like he’s going by with a film crew.

We have the early days in a secure family alongside a developing consciousness of racial injustice; college years, the calling to the pulpit; and of course the unforgettable staging posts along the path: Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, the march on Washington, DC.

“This book seeks to recover the real man from the grey mist of hagiography. In the process of canonising King, we’ve defanged him, replacing his complicated politics and philosophy with catchphrases that suit one ideology or another. We don’t appreciate that King was making demands, not wishes,” Eig writes.

​There is plenty to unpick here; he rightly reclaims King as a radical, a view which has been softened in the years since his death. The final arc of King’s short life proves the point, and is a fascinating part of the book. It’s hard not to wonder where he was going in the period of the last three years of his life.

In the wake of Malcolm X, the emergence of “Black Power”, and his marching alongside revolutionary civil-rights organiser Stokely Carmichael, King’s demands did seem to take on an increasingly militant tone compared to the more passive nature of non-violent marches that preceded. King’s righteousness was ripening towards the radical.

In 1966, short on money and manpower, King was warned about taking his movement north to the notoriously tough city of Chicago to demand fair housing and jobs. Yet he did so defiantly, setting up headquarters in a dilapidated apartment in a slum neighbourhood. “I have to be right here with the people,” he said.

His growing outspokenness against the Vietnam War resulted in estrangement from US President Lyndon Johnson (whose ear King usually had until then, having worked together in creating crucial civil rights legislation in the earlier part of the 1960s).

The year of his death, King announced what became known as the Poor People’s Campaign, when the SCLC led a non-violent army of poor people to Washington, DC, and built a shanty town on public land within sight of the White House and the Capitol, engaging in acts of civil disobedience to disrupt the city and the federal government. His words were radical: this mobilisation was a “last non-violent approach to give the nation a chance to respond… God only knows what will happen if there is no response”.

We know what the response was: King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, aged 39. (James Earl Ray confessed to the crime, but King’s family and friends never accepted the government findings that the killer acted alone.)

If you intend to read one book on King then choose this. King’s story continues to unfold, to inspire; it still holds our hearts and minds.

‘KING: The Life of Martin Luther King’, Jonathan Eig, Simon & Schuster, €21

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