“On December 5, 1955, a young Black man became one of America’s founding fathers. He was twenty-six years old and knew that the role he was taking carried a potential death penalty.” With these riveting opening sentences, journalist and author Jonathan Eig pulls readers into King: A Life, his vibrantly written biography of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. This monumental book takes King down from his pedestal, revealing his flaws, needs, dreams, hopes and weariness.
King: A Life draws on recently released FBI documents, as well as other new materials, including audiotapes recorded by Coretta Scott King in the months after her husband’s death, an unpublished memoir by King’s father and unaired television footage. In cinematic fashion, Eig follows King from his childhood through his seminary and graduate school days, his marriage and his steady insistence on the reformation of a society broken by racism. As Eig points out, King developed a rhetorical style and shaped a new moral vision when he spoke to the crowd gathered at Holt Street Baptist Church to rally in support of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. “On this night, King found a new voice,” he writes. “He discovered or sensed that his purpose was not to instruct or educate; his purpose was to prophesize. With a booming voice and strident words, he marked the path for himself and for a movement.”
Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King felt that the work he had begun in Montgomery was validated, but he recognized that the movement would be incomplete if it remained confined to the South. King desired to “root out racism” all over America, Eig writes, in all its “hidden and subtle and covert disguises.” He also began to turn his attention to issues beyond civil rights for Black Americans, focusing on poverty and the war in Vietnam. By the time he arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 to support the sanitation workers’ strike, King was exhausted, wondering whether the “arc of justice would not bend toward freedom.” In spite of his fatigue and the lack of broader racial reform in the U.S., King refused to give up hope. On the last day of his life, he thundered in his “Promised Land” speech, “I may not get there with you. But . . . we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
Eig candidly asserts that “in hallowing King we have hollowed him.” King: A Life makes him a real human being again, one who had affairs, smoked and drank, got angry and even plagiarized. But Eig encourages readers to “embrace the complicated King, the flawed King, the human King, the radical King” if we are to achieve the kind of change King himself preached in America.