"King: A Life" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Jonathan Eig’s biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) is the first major life history of the civil rights leader to be published in four decades. It benefits from a treasure trove of recently released FBI files and tape recordings and more than 200 personal interviews previously inaccessible to historians and biographers. Eig also relies on the research found in previously published books on King and generously gives those authors credit.
The author utilizes these resources masterfully by focusing extensively throughout its 667 pages on many aspects of King's life, such as his relationship with his grandfather, his leadership in the civil rights movement, the persistent surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover who “saw King as the ultimate disruptor of societal norms,” and his assassination in Memphis.
This is—finally—also a biography that takes seriously Coretta Scott King's political, electoral, and personal contributions to the civil rights movement. Mrs. King sacrificed much for her husband including her own successful music career. She deliberately overlooked King's flaws because she believed in her husband’s causes.
As a biographer, Eig also does not avoid King's foibles and flaws but adeptly addresses them. “In the process of canonizing king, we've defanged him...[but] King was a man, not a saint, not a symbol.”
The biographer presents a portrait of a preacher and activist of towering grandiloquence who plagiarized speeches unapologetically excusing his unethical behavior by arguing his goal was to move audiences. He presents King as a husband who married Coretta Scott and had four children with her but who also pursued many women throughout his life. Eig is critical of those extramarital affairs, but scolds gently: “King’s busy schedule of travel also afforded him opportunities to spend time with women other than Coretta.”
King was viewed both positively and negatively as the most significant champion of civil rights. Later, his dream expanded to include an anti-Vietnam War stance and a commitment to ending worldwide poverty. Through it all, he never swerved from his commitment to nonviolence, even though many of his supporters disagreed with his position.
The book is a testament to a man who dedicated his life to making the lives of others better. As a reader learning more about Martin Luther King Jr., the contents of this book made me uncomfortable, sad, angry, afraid and reminded me of the differences between right and wrong. The book also gave me inspiration and hope. I was captivated by the memoir and found it unputdownable.
“King—A Life” is a monumental work, an extraordinary achievement about the life of this drum major for justice. More classified files about King will be released in 2027 which may lead to another biography, but until that time this is the definitive biography of this civil rights leader. This landmark will be on shelves for a long time.
About the Author: Jonathan Eig is the best-selling author of “Ali: A Life,” winner of the 2018 PEN America Literary Award for biography. His first book, “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig” won the Casey Award, given for the best baseball book of the year. Eig’s books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.