Reviews for King: A Life

by Jonathan Eig

Publishers Weekly
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Martin Luther King Jr. went beyond meek nonviolence into far-reaching radicalism, according to this sweeping biography. Eig (Ali: A Life) gives a rousing recap of King’s triumphs as a civil rights leader—the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 march on Washington, the 1965 procession from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.—as well as his despondency later in the 1960s as his anti-poverty campaigns struggled and Black energies drifted from nonviolent protest toward armed militance and “Black power.” Contesting accusations by Malcolm X and others that King was an “Uncle Tom,” Eig casts him as a revolutionary who reshaped the South with his integrationism, became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War despite losing political support and drawing the ire of the FBI, and developed a deep critique of systemic racism and economic inequality that called for reparations for slavery and a guaranteed minimum income. King is no saint in this complex, nuanced portrait—his plagiarism and womanizing are probed in detail—but Eig’s evocative prose ably conveys his bravery, charisma, and spell-binding oratory (rallying the Montgomery boycotters, “he called out in his deep, throbbing voice, and the people responded, the noise of the crowd rolling and pounding in waves that shook the building as he built to a climax”). It’s an enthralling reappraisal that confirms King’s relevance to today’s debates over racial justice. Agent: David Black, David Black Literary. (May)

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From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Eig (Ali, 2017) has a dream that Americans will remember more about our most famous civil rights icon than one, partially improvised speech. In the most comprehensive MLK biography to date, enhanced with newly released FBI records and unpublished memoirs, Eig digs deep into King’s family history, revealing the fortitude and racial trauma experienced by his grandparents and the indomitable church culture which forged his father. MLK Junior and Senior were devoted to each other yet clashed over doctrine and morality and disagreed over the role of the church and of clergy in social justice movements. Eig notes the influence of Morehouse College in strengthening King’s sense of Black self-worth and identity and of colleagues (and rivals) like Ralph Abernathy in developing King’s own theology of antiracism. Eig insightfully and forthrightly addresses critiques of King as a plagiarist and his relationships with women before and after his marriage to Coretta Scott. Most important, Eig refuses to “defang” King, instead pushing Americans to recognize the radical nature of his demands for justice and his resistance to not only racism but also militarism and capitalism. “Today his words might help us make our way through these troubled times, but only if we actually read them, only if we embrace the complicated King, the flawed King, the human King, the radical King.”

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Definitive life of the champion of civil rights. Having placed Muhammad Ali in the canon of civil rights leaders with his 2017 biography, Eig turns to Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) in a monumental biography. He did not begin life with that name: His parents “named him Michael King, no middle name, no initial, no ‘Junior.’ They called him Little Mike.” Though small, he was a scrapper on the football field and basketball court, a smart and serious student who entered Morehouse College early and, having traveled north on a work program and seen the magic of desegregation, became committed to civil rights. The name change, writes the author, “was clinched during a 1934 trip to Germany, where King learned more about the sixteenth-century German friar.” King first forged the battle for civil rights in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955; in the 13 years he had left, he galvanized that struggle, carefully planning campaigns while refining his skills by, among other things, visiting India to study the nonviolent tactics of Gandhi. Though King “was a man, not a saint, not a symbol,” he was viewed both positively and negatively as the most important advocate of Black rights—a program he would expand to include an anti–Vietnam War platform and a widening effort to end poverty worldwide. That spread him thin, but not enough to elude the obsessive hatred of J. Edgar Hoover, who “saw King as the ultimate disrupter of societal norms.” That he was, even if he was seen as too conservative by some Black militants and too radical by many Whites. Unlike biographers hitherto denied access, Eig examined recently released FBI files to show that there is no evidence that King was a communist operative, as Hoover alleged, though the files do show “the extent and determination of the bureau’s campaign to thwart King.” An extraordinary achievement and an essential life of the iconic warrior for social justice. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal
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Award-winning biographer and journalist Eig (Ali: A Life) turns his lens on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68). Mining a trove of materials—many only recently available—augmented with voluminous archival work and hundreds of interviews for personal insights, Eig advances the already appreciable quantity of first-rate biographies and intensive scholarship on King. He also recovers the man, foibles and all, from the too often hollowed-out, sainted symbol that competing ideologies have sanitized for national observance. His 45 engrossing chapters depict King from his enslaved family's history in antebellum Georgia, his stern father's high expectations, and his soothing mother's calm warmth, through his April 1968 assassination in Memphis. The ambitious, anxious, contemplative, depressed, fun-loving, uncertain private King gets equal attention to the determined, eloquent, fearless public person in the spotlight. From his decrying state-sanctioned and vigilante violence to his stance against the U.S. war in Vietnam and his Poor People's Campaign, Eig notes it all and paints a thorough picture of King. VERDICT A must for readers interested in moving beyond clichéd catchphrases to see a more complete and complex King, the context of his charisma, and the creation and content of his character.—Thomas J. Davis

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.

Positive mainstream publicity for this biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is palpable. Lauded as the first comprehensive examination of his life in over a generation, civil rights scholars have lined up to praise author Jonathan Eig, who, as a journalist, has also completed a biography of renowned boxer Muhammad Ali, similarly titled Ali: A Life (2017). Eig represents an array of elite white writers who tend to suffocate Black historical figures with their insipid representations that most often emasculate these famous personalities, yet are often given the highest accolades. Let me be frank, I derive from the generation of Dr. King’s children, born of color in the 1960s and having experienced many manifestations of individual and institutional racism during my lifetime. With my thirty-plus years’ tenure in academia, teaching and publishing in Africana studies with a focus on the eras of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, this review comes from the mind of a critical thinker also deemed a scholar of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and times. That stated, given the praise for this problematic biography, which was not sanctioned by the King family, one should question why such a study garners such adulation. One reason might be that the book actually does more to obscure King rather than open new doors of discovery. The underlining focus is to vellicate readers with details of King’s sexual encounters and affairs, while ignoring the essence of the man under extreme scrutiny and harassment from the U.S. government, led by the vicious J. Edgar Hoover. Chapter 23, “Temptation and Surveillance,” encapsulates this voyeuristic turn in the opening sentence which sets up King as a debauched philanderer: “In November 1962, King spent nine consecutive days in Atlanta [his hometown], but only two nights at home” (p. 270). Eig employs Ralph Abernathy in this chapter to establish King’s well-known extramarital relationship with Dorothy Cotton, who worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) under King’s stewardship. There is an insidious theme throughout Eig’s take on King’s personality that irks the sensibilities because it lacks balance. He cites Abernathy’s wife Juanita's statement about her husband, that “My husband was trustworthy … He was not deceitful” (p. 273). The implication for readers is clear, that King, by contrast, was both untrustworthy and deceitful. Even when Eig attempts to deal King a moral hand, he pulls it back. For instance, when describing how King would play with his own and Abernathy’s children, Eig writes, “Martin played Candy Land and Monopoly with the children, never letting them win” (p. 274). There is not much subtlety in the way in which King is portrayed in this chapter as a complex man with a penchant for women and a cold heart, unable even to let children win a board game—essentially, a bad man and a bad husband. Like many historical figures, King had his shortcomings, and Eig is sure to let readers know about his extramarital affairs and his bouts with depression. Yet, as Eig does point out, during his thirteen-year tenure as a civil and human rights leader, King was under immense pressure before being assassinated. Stress, as most able-minded people know, can be debilitating to both the mind and body. Confronted with the intense enmity of both state and federal government officials as well as rank-and-file racists daily, is it any wonder King suffered with marital and other personal issues? However, Eig does not confront the depth of this intimidation toward King in any meaningful manner, a glaring omission. For example, the book does not deeply examine Hoover’s open hostility toward King—apart from the surveillance that covered King’s apparent infidelities, there is no analysis of Hoover’s determination to destroy King and the Civil Rights Movement. And yet, if one reads the memoirs of Harry Belafonte, Ralph Abernathy, and Andrew Young, three of King’s closest confidantes, along with that of his attorney Clarence B. Jones, Hoover’s hatred for King becomes profoundly apparent. Almost sixty years after King’s assassination, surely a biography of this man of nonviolence should delve deeper into his murder, especially when there is ample evidence available. Instead, Eig refuses to contemplate so-called assassination conspiracy theories, sticking to a staid biographical account of King that covers his middle-class routes in Atlanta through to the fateful day in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, when a small-time criminal would take the rap for his murder. Attorney William F. Pepper, the man who inspired King to focus on the Vietnam War, spent almost forty years producing three volumes of evidence examining the assassination of King. And yet, Eig ignores that comprehensive study, depriving his volume of genuine scholarly insight. One could argue that this is tantamount to misrepresenting King’s life, particularly in a time when the public should be made aware of new evidence concerning such an important historical event. Before his death, King had long planned to bring an army of poor people to Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1968, an endeavor known as the Poor People’s Campaign, to demand an end to poverty and discrimination against many different cultural groups in the United States. This was to be a seminal event. In its lead-up, Senator Robert C. Byrd condemned the forthcoming march, and King, in a crucial political speech delivered on March 29, 1968, which set the tone to further discredit King ahead of his murder. Byrd stated in his address to Congress that King was a “self-seeking rabble-rouser” who only brought violence wherever he went. Hoover added to this by “upgrading” his negative FBI report on King for President Lyndon B. Johnson. None of this is conspiratorial but rather bona fide political discourse that led to the untimely death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and yet, this critical information and even more of political mainstream evidential material is missing from Eig’s biographical account. Readers should consider this latest biography a medley of previous insights into King’s life that avoids one critical aspect: his assassination. No biography on King worth its salt can afford to bypass the question, Who killed the preacher of nonviolence, and why? Certainly not in the present given the considerable right-wing shift in politics. There is much to be gleaned from examining a life as important as King’s was to the world. Yet, we should not ignore the implication of governmental forces that aimed to destroy this man during his lifetime with a range of insidious actors who actually did so. There comes a time, to paraphrase King, when silence is no longer possible on matters of grave importance. Eig fails to even consider King’s assassination and its fundamental purpose: to maintain the status quo and eliminate a leader working to develop a beloved community free from racism, poverty, and militarism, three powerful forces that are still at work today at the expense of many. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prescient figure, and those who are responsible for keeping his name alive should also consider why such a man was taken from us way before his time. Summing Up: Optional. Graduate students and faculty. --Mark Christian, City University of New York - Lehman