Book cover

It is difficult to believe that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated fifty-five years ago. Given the state of race and racism in America today, it is definitely a propitious time for a reassessment of his life, work, and legacy.

The Pulitzer Prize winning book Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow, was the first full scale biography of King and published in 1986. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years by Taylor Branch and also a Pulitzer Prize winning book, was published in 1988. Both men subsequently published two more books about King’s life and work in, but that has been decades ago.

Most Americans don’t know that at the time of his death, King was seen as wildly unpopular by many Blacks as well as Whites. His disapproval rating was almost seventy-five percent in an early 1968 Harris poll. This was one-third higher than it was in 1963, arguably the height of the Freedom Movement. Of course racist whites detested him, but many other whites, including clergymen–see King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail–were wary of his beliefs and tactics, and didn’t see racism as an important issue.

After King criticized the Vietnam War in 1967, liberal whites who had supported him and donated money to the cause and President Lyndon B. Johnson, dropped him like the proverbial hot potato. From the beginning of his public life, King’s work discomfited many Black Americans, especially middle class Black southerners who in some ways benefitted from the rigid segregation in the South. They thought he was moving too fast or making trouble or disapproved of his methods.

By 1968, young Blacks, especially young Black males, thought King was too cautious. Blacks in large urban northern cities were especially dissatisfied; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were not nearly as helpful to the kind of racism and discrimination they faced. Blacks could vote, go to school, patronize public places, and hold office; however, whites excluded them from the workforce, forced them into substandard and over-crowded housing, and consigned their children to the worst schools.

Eig’s biography differs from those previously mentioned in that he spends a number of pages introducing readers to King’s paternal family, reaching back to his great grandparents, Jim Long and Jane Linsey. Long was born the year after emancipation and lived in the crushing poverty and brutal segregation of the south. Linsey was born enslaved and like, many enslaved women, was forced to sexually submit to her master, fathering five of his children.

King’s paternal grandparents, Jane Delia and Jim King, were poor sharecroppers with eleven children. His father, born Michael King in 1897, was the second of those children. They were desperately poor, and after a physical altercation between Michael King’s mother and a white man, the family’s living situation became untenable. The older man disappeared from home frequently and began to drink. Once, he slapped Delia, and young Michael yelled at him and wrestled him to the floor. Jim King threatened to kill his son, and the young boy disappeared for several days.

Shortly thereafter he returned home, but in the middle of one night, Michael King hit the road and walked to Atlanta, where he worked odd jobs and went to school, starting in the fifth grade. He began attending Ebenezer Baptist Church and felt the call to preach. There, he met the minister’s smart, shy daughter, Alberta. After six years of courting, they married and had three children, Christine, Little Mike, and Alfred Daniel. In 1934 after visiting Germany and learning about the friar, Martin Luther, he changed his first name. After his father-in-law died, the elder King became the associate pastor of his church.

Although King grew up in a rigidly segregated city, he lived in a middle class family, which at least to some extent, spared him the routine indignities that most other Blacks experienced. He loved books and music–his mother was the church pianist and choir director–and developed a friendship with the young white boy whose father owned the community store. But when they began school they went to different ones, and their friendship faded. The boy told King they could no longer play together because young Martin was not white. Puzzled, he went to his parents who explained the southern existence of Blacks and Whites. It was a seminal experience for him.    

King went to Morehouse College, the elite, historically black men’s institution whose record in developing Black excellence and leaders is unmatched, and then to Crozier Theological Seminary. It was here he began learning about pacifism and the social gospel. Moreover, he became seriously involved in a relationship with a white woman, Amelia Elizabeth Motz; she said they were “madly, madly in love.”

They dated openly and controversially over a couple of years, but as talk turned to marriage, King and Motz were forced to think about the relationship on a deeper level. King especially knew the handicap he would face as a Black pastor of a Black church married to a white woman in the deep south. Motz also knew that she could not expect to be welcomed by King’s family, friends, or parishioners. Their relationship ended, and she left Crozier before King graduated. King’s close and dear friend, Harry Belafonte, described King as heartbroken and claimed he never got over losing Motz.

After winning a scholarship to support his doctoral studies, he enrolled at Boston University. Handsome and nattily attired, he dated a number of women. When King asked a friend if she knew any nice, southern women, she gave him Coretta Scott’s phone number. Scott was highly educated, beautiful, refined, and was planning a career on the concert stage. She was also just as determined as King to fight for social change on behalf of Black Americans. By their second date, King was talking marriage. They courted for about two years and after not a little  resistance from Daddy King, they married in June 1953. Scott changed her major from performance to teaching and prepared to become a minister’s wife.

The role of the Black church and religion in the modern day Freedom Movement cannot be overstated. The church was the one institution in the Black community over which whites generally had no authority and where Black men were in charge. In addition to preaching the gospel, the Black church nurtured children, looked after old folks, and imbued courage in its members. Black churches served as meeting places where parishioners were trained in non-violent direct action, helped raise money for people who were arrested, and provided solace. Its integral role in the Black community angered many whites and made Black churches a frequent target of bombings and fires.         

All of the great campaigns of the movement are discussed: the Montgomery boycott and the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); the Atlanta student movement and the college students’ development of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); the Albany Movement, which King and many others thought was a great failure; the Birmingham campaign, which finally forced John F. Kennedy’s administration to confront racism as a moral issue; the March on Washington; and the Selma voting rights march.

These events have been studied and written about so often, it is difficult to see what new information about them could be uncovered. However, Eig provides little known details and nuance to them in such a way that people who have been overlooked and strategies that were seldom reported claim their rightful places in the narrative of the Freedom Movement.

A tremendous boon to Eig was the treasure trove of files released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and he has used these files to great advantage, fleshing out King’s all-too–short, full, and complex life. For years and with the full knowledge of the Kennedy administration, the agency carried on a large-scale, years-long bugging operation that included the homes of King and some of his associates, the church he pastored, and the office of the SCLC, of which King was president.

At first, Hoover was attempting to prove that the Freedom Movement was inspired, bankrolled, and administered by communists, but was when the communist angle was found to be a blind alley, Hoover began focusing on bugging motel rooms in which King conducted dalliances with various women. Some of his former associates and his widow have always pooh-poohed the allegations of marital infidelity, but Eig has names and has interviewed at least one woman, an associate of the SCLC. In addition to the bugging, the FBI sent letters to King and his wife; in one of them, King is encouraged to commit suicide before his infidelity is released to the world.

King: A Life, goes a long way towards humanizing King. He smoked, shot pool, and drank. He enjoyed gossip and joking with his friends and staff. King also suffered from depression, frequent bouts of exhaustion, and feelings of inferiority. The campaign for equality exacted a tremendous toll; his autopsy showed that he had the heart of a man in his sixties. King’s commitment to non-violence, however, never wavered, and it was to be a prominent feature in the last campaign on which he was working when he died: The Poor People’s Movement.

Eig has written an incredibly worthy book of the man, the movement, and the times.