King: The Life of Martin Luther King
by Jonathan Eig.
Simon & Schuster, 669 pp., £25, May, 978 1 4711 8100 9
In March 1968, only a few days before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr visited Long Beach, a suburb of New York City, at the invitation of a local NAACP leader. Like many suburbs at that time, Long Beach was effectively a segregated community, with an African American population living in a tiny ghetto and working in the homes of local white families. I grew up in Long Beach, but by 1968 had moved to the city. My parents, however, still lived there, and my outspoken mother arranged to see the city manager, a non-partisan administrator who exercised the authority normally enjoyed by an elected mayor. ‘A great American is visiting Long Beach,’ she declared, urging the manager to hold a reception for King at City Hall. He refused: ‘He’s a troublemaker and we don’t want him here.’
This minor incident goes unmentioned in Jonathan Eig’s new biography of King, of course. But it illustrates a theme to which Eig returns several times. People of every political persuasion now claim King as a forebear. But during his lifetime, King and the civil rights movement aroused considerable opposition, not only in the South. The government sought to destroy King’s reputation. With the authorisation of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, the FBI listened in on his phone calls with close associates and planted informers in his circle. Convinced the civil rights movement was a communist plot, J. Edgar Hoover’s G-men gathered recordings of his trysts with women and mailed them to his house, accompanied by an unsigned letter suggesting that he take his own life.
Eig’s previous subjects include Muhammad Ali, Al Capone and the baseball stars Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig. He is an indefatigable researcher, and King is based on a vast array of material, old and new, including documents collected by previous historians of the civil rights movement, thousands of pages of recently released FBI intercepts, more than two hundred interviews, and previously unknown audio tapes recorded by King’s wife, Coretta, after his death. Does all this produce a strikingly new portrait of King? Not really: the trajectory of his life is, in the end, familiar. But Eig offers affecting accounts of the Montgomery bus boycott, which made King a national figure; the confrontation in the streets of Birmingham between young Black demonstrators and ‘Bull’ Connor’s dogs and fire hoses; and the march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. Eig’s admiration for King is obvious, but he is not reluctant to point out failures, such as the Chicago Freedom Movement and the Poor People’s Campaign, which sought to expand the civil rights movement to address poverty among Americans of all races.
Eig’s style is journalistic, with brief paragraphs driving the narrative forward. This structure sometimes seems at odds, however, with the book’s aspiration to present a full portrait of King; it makes it hard for Eig to provide analysis of the movement’s historical background or King’s own ideas. But he avoids pitfalls to which some previous writers have succumbed, such as drawing too stark a contrast between a ‘good’, racially integrated, non-violent movement led by King and a subsequent ‘bad’ one when Black Power became the order of the day and urban uprisings alienated many previously sympathetic whites. Eig makes clear that King was masterful in appealing for support from white Americans by associating the civil rights struggle with cherished documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. But he resists the temptation to portray the movement as fulfilling the immanent logic of an American creed of liberty and equality established at the nation’s founding. (For this latter approach, see The 1776 Report, a brief account of American history issued in the waning days of the Trump administration, which claims that the establishment of the American nation ‘planted the seeds’ of the abolition of slavery and equal citizenship rights for Blacks.) Eig demonstrates that neither the movement’s emergence nor its successes were preordained. They required both King’s leadership and the mobilisation of thousands of courageous men and women who risked their lives to bring down the legal edifice of Jim Crow.
King was born in Atlanta in 1929, the son of Martin ‘Daddy’ King, a prominent Baptist minister who grew up in poverty in rural Georgia and through hard work and self-discipline managed to join Atlanta’s Black middle class. The elder King established strong connections with the city’s white power brokers – so strong, in fact, that even while speaking out against racism he urged parishioners, including the ten-year-old Martin, dressed as a slave, to take part in a gala celebration for the 1939 premiere of Gone with the Wind. Daddy King ‘fought for social change’, Eig writes, but ‘urged his followers to be patient’. King Jr, who after some resistance acceded to his father’s pressure to follow him into the ministry, attended the segregated Morehouse College in Atlanta; Crozer Theological Seminary, a small institution in Pennsylvania; and Boston University, where he earned his PhD. At Morehouse, King was inspired by the lectures of the college president, Benjamin Mays, who urged students to challenge segregation and was strongly influenced by the Social Gospel movement popularised by the theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, who in the late 19th century had argued that the fight for social justice was a religious duty. King Jr was a serious student of philosophy and theology, drawing on the writings of Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau to develop a powerful justification for disobedience to unjust laws. At a time when only 2 per cent of the Black population had graduated from college, King exemplified the ‘talented tenth’ to whom W.E.B. Du Bois looked for racial leadership.
In 1954, King became minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, a rigidly segregated city that Eig describes as ‘a bastion of the Ku Klux Klan’. When King arrived, local leaders were already campaigning for improvements in the Black condition. But in 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white passenger, as required by Alabama law, Montgomery became the site of a bus boycott that lasted a year and inspired advocates of social change throughout the US. Partly because he was new to the city and hadn’t been involved in factional fighting among Black leaders, King was asked to lead the boycott. Eig makes the useful point that thanks to housing segregation, the solidly middle-class King family had no choice but to live among maids and sanitation workers, giving him, perhaps for the first time, experience of the Black working class.
In his speech, delivered to an overflowing crowd at a Baptist church, King struck a prophetic note, telling his audience of ordinary African Americans that the Constitution and Christian morality were on their side and that their moral superiority over the white perpetrators of violence was their greatest strength. ‘If you will protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say: “There lived a great people – a Black people – who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilisation.”’ King’s oratory, combined with the commitment of Montgomery’s Black residents, who walked for a year rather than ride the segregated buses, eventually led to a Supreme Court decision requiring the integration of public transportation. King was catapulted to national prominence. For the rest of his life, he travelled the country lecturing, leading demonstrations, raising funds and recruiting participants to the civil rights movement. In 1960, when the sit-ins launched a wave of protests throughout the South, leadership passed to a younger generation of Black activists. But the press never stopped equating King with the movement, to the annoyance of many of his associates.
The path from Montgomery to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act a year later and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 – the movement’s legislative triumphs – was anything but smooth. Eig points out that in 1964, a decade after the Supreme Court declared racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional, only 1 per cent of white children in the South attended school alongside Blacks. Later in the 1960s, when King brought the movement to Chicago, his marchers were met by rioters carrying ‘White Power’ signs. The fate of the Chicago Freedom Movement revealed some of the strengths and weaknesses of King’s leadership. He mobilised Blacks and white allies with memorable speeches and earned his followers’ respect both for his deep religious convictions and for being willing to suffer the same treatment they endured. He was jailed more than two dozen times and had a bomb explode at his Montgomery home.
But King was never a strong administrator and the result, according to Eig, was ‘organisational chaos’. King refused to listen when colleagues warned that the movement lacked the resources to launch a campaign against urban poverty, slum housing and other manifestations of economic inequality. He battled exhaustion from ceaseless travels and suffered bouts of self-doubt and depression. Eig discusses two of King’s less praiseworthy traits. One was a weakness for plagiarism, which began in high school and was evident in his doctoral dissertation, though Eig points out that his supervisors at Boston University should have caught King’s appropriation of language from well-known works of theology and philosophy. Without excusing what he calls his subject’s ‘bad habit’, Eig notes that King’s plagiarism reflected his haphazard research method of copying information onto notecards without recording the source, then incorporating the material directly into his text. ‘Sampling’ – borrowing particularly effective passages from the sermons of other ministers – wasn’t uncommon among Baptist preachers.
More serious is King’s history of extra-marital relationships, some brief, some long term. The FBI’s wiretaps of King’s phone calls and surveillance of his travel reveal the extent of such liaisons. Hoover was obsessed with King’s sex life, though his preoccupation seems to have had as much to do with prurience as national security. He delighted in sharing salacious information from the recordings with select members of Congress as well as Kennedy and Johnson (who weren’t exactly choirboys when it came to infidelity). The most serious accusation against King is that he was present in a hotel room where a woman was raped by one of his associates. This charge appears in a summary of phone recordings written by William C. Sullivan, one of Hoover’s lieutenants. Experts on King’s career have questioned the reliability of Sullivan’s account. Like Hoover, Sullivan was committed to ‘completely discredit[ing] King as the leader of the Negro people’. A judge has ordered the recordings closed until 2027, when scholars can evaluate the truthfulness of Sullivan’s report.
Eig takes a matter-of-fact approach in discussing King’s liaisons. He points out that King – charming, powerful and widely respected – attracted interest from many women, but rightly focuses on the impact of King’s behaviour on his wife, who was aware of at least some of the affairs. Eig devotes more attention to Coretta Scott King than previous biographers, emphasising that she was an anti-racist radical in her own right. It tells us something about life in the Jim Crow South that although she was the daughter of a successful Black businessman she grew up in a home in rural Alabama without running water or electricity and was forced to walk five miles each day to attend school while white children travelled by bus.
Coretta attended Antioch College in Ohio, where she became involved in political activism. In 1948, as a student delegate, she attended the national convention of the Progressive Party, whose presidential candidate, Henry Wallace, advocated for racial justice and challenged the Truman administration’s emerging Cold War foreign policy. In 1952, during their courtship, she gave King a copy of Edward Bellamy’s influential socialist novel Looking Backward (1888). She was a talented singer and attended the New England Conservatory in Boston. (Ironically, in accordance with the Supreme Court’s ‘separate but equal’ doctrine, the government of Alabama partly paid her tuition since the state did not make such training available to Black students.) With four children at home and her husband almost always absent, a professional career was impossible but she sometimes gave fundraising performances. King admired her intellect and frequently consulted her on matters of strategy. Yet she later wrote that he thought women’s main role was as mothers and housewives. The movement had no dearth of talented, strong-willed women activists, including the grassroots organiser Ella Baker and Jo Ann Robinson, a Montgomery college professor and a key organiser of the bus boycott. But its top echelons were almost entirely male. Every speaker at the 1963 March on Washington was a man.
In 1957, Black ministers formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), with King at its head, to co-ordinate protests against segregation throughout the South. But as state and local governments embarked on a path of ‘massive resistance’ to integration, the pace of progress slowed and the phrase ‘white backlash’ began to appear in the press. Resistance stiffened as the 1960s progressed. ‘King came under attack from all sides,’ Eig writes. After the 1966 march demanding open housing in Chicago was targeted by rioters, King said: ‘I think the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.’
The Chicago campaign and the Poor People’s Movement that followed are often seen as marking the shift in King’s priorities from racial to economic equality. But King had long recognised how closely these issues were intertwined and had often spoken of the need for ‘economic justice’. Despite racial discrimination by many unions, King saw the labour movement as Blacks’ greatest potential ally. In 1959, he lent his name to organising efforts by Local 1199, the Drug, Hospital and Health Care Employees’ Union in New York City, whose members at the time earned a meagre thirty dollars a week. ‘Whatever I can do, call on me,’ he told the union’s executive secretary, my uncle Moe Foner.
Sometimes King spoke of eliminating the ‘physical ghetto’ altogether. It is often forgotten that the March on Washington was a joint venture of the civil rights movement and liberal labour unions, and that its demands included a massive public works programme to provide the poor of all races with ‘Jobs and Freedom’ – the event’s official title. In the mid-1960s, King and the veteran activist Bayard Rustin proposed a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged that would eradicate poverty by guaranteeing full employment and a universal basic income. Portions of the left had been promoting such policies since FDR proposed a Bill of Economic Rights in 1944. When King delivered his Riverside Church speech of 1967, calling for an end to the war in Vietnam, he not only spoke in unusually heated language about the US government – the ‘greatest purveyor of violence in the world’ – but also warned that the conflict was draining resources from the struggle against what he elsewhere called the country’s ‘tragic inequalities’.
Eig notes that as a college student, King expressed interest in ‘democratic socialism’. Before their marriage he wrote to Coretta that ‘I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.’ But Eig doesn’t do enough to elucidate King’s economic ideas. It’s true that the anti-poverty campaigns of the last years of his life were grounded in Christian morality as much as economic analysis. It might be best to view him as seeking ways to extend to African Americans the principles of the Social Gospel, most of whose advocates had ignored the Black condition even as they called for equality of wealth and power. King insisted that ‘genuine equality’ meant ‘economic equality’. Such comments reinforced Hoover’s conviction that King was ‘the most dangerous Negro’ in the United States.
One of the things Hoover found alarming was the presence among King’s close advisers of Stanley Levison, a New York lawyer and businessman who had once been a member of the Communist Party. Hoover passed warnings about Levison to Kennedy, who urged King to sever their connection. Neither Hoover nor Kennedy knew much about African American history. If they had, they wouldn’t have found the presence in the movement of a former communist surprising. Since the 1930s, the party had been one of the few predominantly white organisations to make racial justice a major concern. Levison had spent many hours helping to get SCLC off the ground. He also prepared King’s annual tax returns. Levison, in fact, often pushed King in a moderate direction. He warned him that white Americans were willing to support some changes in the social order, but not ‘revolution’, and argued against shifting movement resources to the Poor People’s Campaign. Levison criticised the Riverside Church speech for lacking focus and urged King to ‘remain basically a civil rights leader and not a peace leader’. (This didn’t prevent Hoover from informing Johnson that Levison had written the speech for King.) Despite the voluminous research he has conducted, Eig doesn’t take advantage of recent books by Martha Biondi, Glenda Gilmore, Michael Honey and others who delineate the role of communists in civil rights struggles without embracing Hoover’s fantasy that the movement was directed from Moscow. None of these historians is cited in Eig’s text or notes.
Nor does Eig touch on the last major speech before King’s death, delivered in 1968 in New York City at a celebration of the centenary of Du Bois’s birth. King paid tribute to Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, calling it a ‘monumental achievement’. The book had dismantled the racist representation of the post-Civil War years as a period of misgovernment that demonstrated the supposed inability of Blacks to take part in American democracy. Du Bois, King declared, ‘exemplified Black power in achievement and he organised Black power in action’, language that reminds us of the often ignored overlap between King’s views and those of younger Black militants. King forthrightly rejected Cold War ideology. Du Bois, King noted, was ‘a communist in his later years ... a genius [who] chose to be a communist’, and his career demonstrated the absurdity of ‘our irrational obsessive anti-communism’.
King’s Du Bois speech came at a time when his own view of American history was changing. Previously he had rarely discussed Reconstruction. Now he saw that era, not the Revolution or even emancipation, as a crucial moment of hope for Black Americans, ‘their most important and creative period of history’. The continuing distortion of the period by historians raised a troubling question. King had long identified the movement with core American values inherited from the nation’s founding. But what, in fact, were the nation’s deepest values? All men are created equal? Or something more sinister, exemplified by Reconstruction’s violent overthrow? King had originally believed, he told the journalist David Halberstam, that American society could be reformed through many small changes. Now, he said, he felt ‘quite differently’. ‘I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.’ Was the movement the fulfilment of American values, or their repudiation?
According to Monuments Lab, an organisation that keeps track of such things, King today ranks fourth, after Lincoln, Washington and Columbus, among individuals with public monuments in the United States. But the price of King’s deification in recent years has been the absorption of the civil rights movement into a consensual, feel-good portrait of American history. King, Eig warns us, has been ‘defanged’. On Martin Luther King Jr Day, we don’t hear the voice of the radical King, the ally of the labour movement and critic of economic inequality and war. His great speech at the March on Washington is all but reduced to a single sentence: ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.’ Conservatives have long quoted this to enlist King retroactively in the campaign to end affirmative action. In fact, in his final book, Where Do We Go from Here? (1967), King, while acknowledging that ‘special treatment’ for Blacks seemed in conflict with the principle of ‘equal treatment of people according to their individual merits’, embraced affirmative action. Why? History supplied the answer. After doing ‘something special against the Negro for hundreds of years’, the US had an obligation to ‘do something special for him’. It is a pity that six members of the Supreme Court recently made it clear that they do not agree. It is still more lamentable that because of recent laws barring the teaching of ‘divisive’ subjects, the history of racism – without which King’s life is incomprehensible – is being driven out of American classrooms.
Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia and the author of many books on Reconstruction, including The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010), which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2011.
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