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King: The Life of Martin Luther King by Jonathan Eig review – a story that speaks to our times | Biography books

Owho was Reverend Martin Luther King Jr? In America, the civil rights activist and Baptist minister is now embraced by all political walks of life, even as the teaching of the history of discrimination and segregation that shaped him is actively repressed in many parts of the world. country. Beyond the United States, it is widely celebrated in countries facing difficult questions about their own racial past.

At the time of his assassination in 1968, however, most Americans had a negative view of him, and the National Security Agency had tapped his overseas phone calls. As late as the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan could declare that the question of whether he had been a communist dupe was still open, as King’s enemies in J Edgar Hoover’s FBI had long claimed. By the end of that decade, however, with a national holiday in his honor (reluctantly endorsed by Reagan) and award-winning biographies of Taylor Branch and David Garrow in print, King’s image had undergone a remarkable transformation. Scholars now argue over the influence of Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas on him, though the public often adopts a simpler image of King that renders his racial and economic pronouncements more radical in innocuous terms.

Jonathan Eig, author of a monumental biography of the boxer and activist Muhammad Ali, promises to give us a new king, all in roundness and adapted to our moment. His book aspires to “help us through these troubled times” and comes with many endorsements from past biographers.

His subject was originally named Mike King Jr, after his Baptist preacher father. King Sr, also known as Daddy King, later adopted the more auspicious name of the reforming German theologian for himself and his son. The family home was in Atlanta, and King, Alberta’s independent-minded mother was the daughter of a minister who presided at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where father and son preached.

Eig traces the handsomely dressed and flirtatious king’s progress through his studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta to Crozer Theological Seminary (where he committed one of his many acts of plagiarism) to his doctoral studies at the Boston University, where he met his future wife, Coretta Scott. . Scott’s passion for civil rights and social reform, we learn, probably exceeded King’s. Once her husband rose to fame, she became an activist in her own right, setting out on the road to put her vocal training and organizing passion to work for the movement – ​​while raising their four children.

The 26-year-old King’s life-changing event was the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, sparked when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger in December 1955. King, a newcomer to town as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was chosen to lead the boycott partly because of his willingness to fight, and partly because he didn’t yet have a rivals or enemies among local black leaders. The boycotters succeeded, helped by a Supreme Court victory. This victory made King the national face of a newly ascendant black freedom movement.

Eig does a great job of tracing King’s inner struggles and doubts amid the sudden onslaught of media attention, threats, the bombing of his home and his impending death after being stabbed by a black woman. in Harlem. He also devotes close attention to the FBI’s eavesdropping and harassment campaign (authorized by Attorney General Robert Kennedy), which included sending King audiotaped evidence of his extramarital affairs, as well as a letter suggesting that he resign from the leadership or possibly commit suicide before being exposed.

These efforts intensified amid the events for which King is now best known: the Birmingham protests of 1963, King’s famous speech during the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery that advanced the the right to vote of 1965, his efforts to bring the movement north to the slums of Chicago, his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize and his opposition to the Vietnam War. Eig also repeatedly defends King against the FBI’s accusation that he was being manipulated by the small and ineffective Communist Party of America. Although, by insisting on this point, he is perhaps inadvertently giving credence to the Office’s wording of things – and diminishing the reader’s appreciation of King’s own expansive vision of social justice for the poor and disadvantaged. deprived of their rights.

Eig takes the time to thoroughly document King’s many cases – which we know about in large part through relentless FBI surveillance. Along the way, he makes choices that will be controversial to some, such as his inclusion (albeit skeptical) of David Garrow’s much-criticized claim that King may have “laughed and offered advice” when a fellow minister committed an act of rape – an accusation that comes from King’s enemies at the FBI and cannot be assessed until the supporting documents are released in 2027.

Sometimes Eig’s book gives us hints of a king who might speak directly to our times – for example his advocacy of reparations for African Americans for centuries of servitude and oppression, although he is notable that his latest effort, the March of the Poor on Washington, sought to recruit Chicanos, Native Americans, white coal miners, and other groups to his cause. Generally, however, the king we find here is the one that previous biographers have mapped. Eig’s in-depth account updates their work, but aside from, for example, placing Coretta closer to the center of the story and tracing the exact origins of the “I Have a Dream” section of the March on Washington speech. , it mainly retraces and deepens the traces of a familiar story.

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Above all, it reveals a flawed, self-doubting man hunted and persecuted by his enemies in the U.S. government while retaining enough faith to achieve visions of the future that exceeded those of many of his closest allies. . At the time of his assassination, he was planning to deliver a sermon entitled “Why America Can Go To Hell”.

Each generation must wrestle with its life and its heritage. For those seeking a readable and comprehensive account of King’s life, backed by extensive and up-to-date archival and oral history research, Eig’s book will remain essential reading – but certainly not the final word on his subject.

Kenneth W Mack is Professor of Law and Affiliate Professor of History at Harvard University. King: The Life of Martin Luther King by Jonathan Eig is published by Simon & Schuster. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.


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