A Feature Review of
King: A Life
Reviewed by Amy Merrick
“I have come to believe more and more in a personal God,” said Martin Luther King Jr., “not a process, but a person, a creative power with infinite love who answers prayers.” In his remarkable new biography, Jonathan Eig explores how the civil rights leader was sustained and challenged by his relationship with God, and how, inspired by the example of Jesus, he came to dedicate his life to helping Black people become free.
The book opens not with King himself but with his father, a formidable character who slips out of his turbulent family home and heads to Atlanta, lying about his age and securing a job shoveling coal for a railroad company. Known then as Michael King (Sr.), he learns to preach through practice and then through study. He is determined to marry Alberta, the daughter of A.D. Williams, the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and he succeeds after years of pursuit. Eventually, King becomes pastor of Ebenezer himself.
The younger King, called “Little Mike” by his family (he and his father adopted the name Martin Luther later), has a competitive drive and a good-natured spirit. Born in 1929, the middle child of three, he is molded by his mother’s unconditional love and his father’s high expectations. The anecdotes from King’s childhood offer a new perspective, making him more relatable and emphasizing his humanity.
Eig traces King’s spiritual development as he grows up in his father’s church, absorbing the drama and compassion of Baptist preaching and a profound recognition of the evils of racism. As he continues his education, King is influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, who argued that people’s inherent sinfulness would perpetually undermine efforts toward social justice. “Christian love alone would not change the world, not so long as political and economic systems created vast inequalities among God’s children,” Eig writes in summarizing Niebuhr’s position. In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr pointed to Gandhi’s nonviolent methods as a promising means of challenging corrupt social structures. After King attends a lecture on Gandhi, he becomes convinced of the merits of the Indian leader’s approach. King begins to emphasize the moral force of agape love. “When we love on the agape level,” King later wrote, “we love men not because we like them . . . but because God loves them.”
Eig, a Chicago journalist (and my former colleague at the Wall Street Journal), is the author of six books, including Ali: A Life and Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season. To learn about King, he interviewed more than two hundred people, reviewed tens of thousands of pages of newly released and newly discovered archival documents, and listened to audiotapes that Coretta Scott King recorded as she worked on her first memoir. The result has been heralded as the first definitive biography of King in decades.
Although Eig’s reporting process is admirably thorough, in his writing he keeps scenes moving, always explaining how events shaped King or those close to him. The author briefly explains where he learned his information, then returns to the plot. He never makes his research the center of the story.
Eig also pays careful attention to structure, ending chapters on resonant moments and deftly introducing themes that gather significance as the book unfolds. He harnesses the power of King’s speeches, taking advantage of their rhythms, the way they build to an emotional and rhetorical climax. Describing King’s first major sermon at Ebenezer in 1947, Eig writes, “He hit hard on the first syllables of his words and stretched his vowels. He started slowly and built speed. Even as he accelerated, as his voice crescendoed, as he swept his audience to greater heights, he remained in complete control. His promise was unmistakable.”
King’s inspirational leadership during the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, which began in 1955, when he was just twenty-six years old, launched him to the forefront of the burgeoning civil rights movement. From this point onward, he rides waves of elation and disappointment as he navigates complex decisions. His success makes him a target, foreshadowing the opposition he will face for the rest of his life; he is arrested, he receives death threats, and his home is bombed.
King helps younger people entering the movement, rallying students conducting sit-ins across the South to integrate lunch counters. In 1963, in Birmingham, he draws attention to Eugene “Bull” Connor’s brutal repression of protesters. He writes “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” challenging the passivity of white religious leaders, and he ultimately helps secure a commitment to desegregation.
The writing in King generally keeps readers close to the civil rights leader’s perspective. An exception is the chapter on the 1963 March on Washington and King’s celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech, which is told from the point of view of two everyday people: a Black teenager from Chicago and a white National Park Service ranger assigned to protect King. The approach, Eig explains, was inspired by a Don DeLillo novella, and while it represents a digression from the overarching shape of the book, it also shows King’s effect on some of the millions of people he inspired.
Relationships are crucial in deepening and enriching biography, and Eig depicts many of the people who supported King—foremost among them Coretta Scott King, his wife, who not only raised their four children but traveled in support of the civil rights movement, sang at fundraising concerts, and advised and comforted her husband through his greatest challenges. Days after King’s assassination, Coretta led marchers through Memphis in support of its striking sanitation workers; the city burned like so many others in the wake of her husband’s death.
There is also Ralph Abernathy, King’s best friend and constant companion, a fellow Baptist minister and co-creator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. There is his father, “Daddy King,” whom his son alternately tries to please and gain independence from. And there is Stanley Levison, an advisor and confidant whose connection to the Communist Party draws the attention of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
Eig is scrupulously fair about citing King’s weaknesses, creating a more nuanced portrait of the man than the oversimplified portrayal that has at times neutralized his message, reducing it to platitudes. A small instance of plagiarism early in his education becomes a larger lapse in his doctoral dissertation. Even before meeting Coretta, he expresses fears of being unfaithful to his wife, as his own father had been.
King’s affairs become a dangerous vulnerability to exploit. Eig draws on thousands of pages of FBI memos released in the past few years, some purporting to capture salacious details of recorded conversations. The full recordings are not yet available, and it is difficult to gauge the accuracy of the memos. But it is clear that King had a longstanding relationship with Dorothy Cotton, who held a prominent role in the SCLC, and that he somehow managed amid his constant travels to spend time with numerous other women. In the weeks leading up to the March on Washington, the FBI recorded King’s intimate phone calls with Cotton and three other women across the United States. It is baffling to imagine how King had the energy for these entanglements, and difficult to understand why he continued them despite the risks. It shows that for even the most thorough biographer, there are sides of a person that will remain mysterious, that every man—to paraphrase King—is at war with himself.
In the book it often feels as if America is at war with itself, too. In 1963, the euphoria of the March on Washington was closely followed by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four girls. President John F. Kennedy is assassinated. Lyndon B. Johnson uses his first major speech as president to commit to passing Kennedy’s civil rights bill, which becomes law the following year. Always, there are setbacks and renewals. King feels he cannot, must not rest.
In later chapters, King often falls into despair, as his efforts to challenge segregation in the North flounder, disorganization at the SCLC hinders its progress, and the FBI hounds him relentlessly. The white backlash to the movement is horrifying. Riots flare. King both understands and fears the rising desire among some Black activists to abandon nonviolent tactics. “There were dark days before,” he says, “but this is the darkest.”
King’s decision to speak out against the Vietnam War alienates him from Johnson and frustrates his allies. But for King, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, publicly denouncing the war is nonnegotiable. His consciousness is expanding, his vision broadening to encompass more of God’s people around the world. He is determined to live by his principles, to not turn his back on what is demanded by his faith in Jesus. For a man haunted by his weaknesses, this steadfastness is an inner victory.
When King arrives in Memphis in the book’s final pages, the knowledge of what is about to happen is almost unbearable. He is only thirty-nine years old. The tone is elegiac. “A thunderstorm raged outside,” Eig writes of the evening of April 3, 1968. “On the last night of his life, King wore a long black raincoat over his suit and tie. People reached out to touch him as he stepped in the door and down the aisle to the pulpit.” After King speaks, Abernathy embraces him; King’s eyes are filled with tears. He is killed the next day.
Throughout his life as an activist, King anticipated his own murder. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, King told Coretta, “This is what is going to happen to me also,” and she could not tell him otherwise. But he kept moving forward, because he felt a responsibility to the people who had put their faith in him, and because he believed that he was called by God.
King is a significant achievement, a work of history, theology, philosophy, and narrative that speaks to our times, expressing the power of a man and a movement that countered brutality with nonviolence and love.
Amy Merrick is a senior professional lecturer in journalism at DePaul University in Chicago. She is also a freelance writer and editor, and a longtime member of the Religion in Literature book group at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Illinois.
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