Jonathan Eig’s King: A Life is the first major biography in decades to be written on the civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.—it is also the first biography to include recently declassified FBI files on King and the Civil Rights Movement. As the book’s description notes, Eig’s explosive new biography “casts fresh light on the King family’s origins as well as MLK’s complex relationships with his wife, father, and fellow activists. ‘King’ reveals a minister wrestling with his own human frailties and dark moods, a citizen hunted by his own government, and a man determined to fight for justice even if it proved to be a fight to the death.” TRNN contributor Anders Lee speaks with Eig about the process of researching and writing a new biography of one of the nation’s most celebrated figures and mourned martyrs.
Jonathan Eig is the author of six books, including four New York Times best sellers. His most recent book is King: A Life, which the Times called a “the definitive biography” of Martin Luther King Jr. and a book “worthy of its subject.” Prior to that, Eig wrote Ali: A Life, which has been hailed as one of the best sports biographies of all time. His first book, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, won the Casey Award.
Pre-Production: Anders Lee
Post-Production: Jules Taylor
Anders Lee: Welcome to The Real News, Anders Lee here. The biographer Jonathan Eig, who’s profiled towering figures like Lou Gehrig and Muhammad Ali, has a new subject: the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who Eig calls one of modern America’s founding fathers. Today I’m speaking with Eig on little known aspects of King’s personal life, his views on non-violence, socialism, and more, as well as revelations on MLK Jr.’s relationship with Malcolm X, all covered in Jonathan Eig’s new book, King: A Life. We are now joined by Jonathan Eig, author of the new book. Jonathan, thank you for talking to me today.
Jonathan Eig: My pleasure.
Anders Lee: Now I want to begin by asking about your first memories about learning of Dr. King and his legacy. For me, probably like most millennials, we were taught about King in the same manner we were taught about George Washington or Lincoln, were fairly non-controversial figures. Was that the case with you? And was King someone you were always interested in, or did that interest only come about in recent years?
Jonathan Eig: I don’t remember how or when I first heard of King. I was born in 1964, so I was four years old when he was killed. I was just a little shy of my fourth birthday, so I don’t remember the assassination at all. And by the time I get to school, it’s probably a little too soon to be teaching “I Have a Dream”, I don’t think they’re going to be teaching that in 1970, just two years after the assassination. But it is funny for me to think about, the fact that it was only two years after the assassination, that we tend to think of it as an ancient history, maybe anything that occurs before we were born, we think of it as ancient history, at least in our childhoods. So it’s not really until high school or even college that I’m hearing about King. And no, he didn’t particularly interest me at that point. He seemed a lot less interesting to me than Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.
So by the ’70s and ’80s, when I’m beginning to read about Black history and I’m getting interested in it, in college in the early, mid ’80s when I’m studying it, King is seen as this very safe, almost conservative figure. And I was more interested in the more radical figures. And I think that’s still true today, we tend to relegate King to that boring part of history. Even my kids, when I told them I wanted to do a Martin Luther King book, they groaned, they didn’t think it was interesting at all. So that’s an interesting phenomenon, I think.
Anders Lee: Right. Well, your book is the first comprehensive biography of Martin Luther King Jr. in over 30 years. What do you think differentiates it from previous accounts of King’s life?
Jonathan Eig: Well, I wanted to write a more intimate portrait of King, I wanted to make him feel real and human, someone you could relate to. But I also wanted to remind people how radical he was, because as I was saying, we’ve treated him as the most conservative figure of the era, but he wasn’t conservative at all. He was actually incredibly radical, and maybe more radical, in many ways, than folks like Malcolm X. Because King was not just talking the talk, he was walking the walk, he was getting things done. He was trying to work to change the system as opposed to simply complaining about the system. And to me, in many ways, that’s bolder.
Anders Lee: Well, the book certainly sheds a lot of light on his early childhood, including on the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., who’s often overshadowed by his son. What should people know about Daddy King, as he was called?
Jonathan Eig: Yeah, it’s really important to remember that Daddy King was born a sharecropper. So Martin Luther King’s grandparents were born into slavery, and his father was a sharecropper until the age of 12, when he walked off the farm in Stockbridge, Georgia, and made his way to Atlanta and decided that he was going to try to remake himself.
So Martin Luther King Jr., the Nobel Prize winner, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this man of international fame and power is really only just a few years off of the sharecropping farm. And it’s important to realize that Daddy King is the one who, perhaps more than anyone else, is responsible for that huge leap, because he imagines that something better as possible if he can just get away from that relationship with the sharecropping white family that is controlling his destiny. And gets himself to Atlanta, educates himself, marries into this other powerful Black family of preachers, and teaches his flock and his family that if they fight, they can change the system. And that’s the environment in which Martin Luther King Jr. is born.
Anders Lee: Something I found really interesting is that, originally, they were both named Michael King and Michael King Jr. And then the senior, Daddy King, changed the name. What’s the story behind that, and what kind of influence did the original Martin Luther, the German Friar, have on the Kings theologically as well as politically?
Jonathan Eig: When Martin Luther King Jr. is born, he’s named Mike, as you point out, and they call him Little Mike to differentiate him from his father. And Michael King, the original Mike King Sr., is just looking for ways, at first, to make himself seem more dignified. So instead of calling himself Mike, he calls himself Michael, and then he starts calling himself ML. He didn’t have a middle name as far as we can tell, but he calls himself ML just because using initials sounded better, sounded more professional. And also at the time, when you met Black people in the South, they tended to call you Mikey or Mike, even though you were Rev. King. So by using ML, he made it harder for white people to denigrate him. Taking away that first name made it harder for people to denigrate him. So he would be Rev. ML King.
And then he traveled to Germany and learned more about the German Friar Martin Luther King and his attitudes about reform. And I think found a kindred spirit, in a way, with somebody who was willing to stand up to society, and even stand up to the church and say, you’re not doing enough, and really felt that that spoke to him.
So he informed his son Little Mike, hey, guess what? I’m taking a new name, and so are you. So Little Mike becomes ML Jr., and even when he goes off to college, he’s still calling himself Mike. It’s not until really graduate school that he starts calling himself Martin King and then Martin Luther King.
Anders Lee: Right. And it seems there’s something about their interpretation of the Bible as a living document, as something that you have to uphold in reality and not just theologically, that really rings true.
Another aspect of the book I found revelatory was MLK Jr.’s struggle with mental health. He was hospitalized multiple times for what he called exhaustion, some of his friends called it depression. And without getting too psychoanalytical, because I do appreciate the way you try to avoid putting King on the couch, so to speak, how early did this issue begin, and was it related at all to his early family life?
Jonathan Eig: It begins pretty early. At age 12 he attempts suicide. And some people would say it was only half-hearted – He jumped from a second-story window of his home. First time it was after his grandmother had fallen and been hurt. And then he did it again when his grandmother died, jumped out the same window. And he referred to it as a suicide attempt. So I don’t think it’s putting it too aggressively to say that he already, at that age, was struggling emotionally.
And then as you pointed out, numerous times throughout his career he’s hospitalized for exhaustion. And we have the FBI transcripts of his phone calls, we can hear him sometimes saying how desperately worn out he is, how much he needs a break, how he wishes he could just stay in the hospital for weeks and avoid the public.
And some people think that he might’ve been manic depressive. Again, I avoid trying to put a label on it because he was never able to put a label on it. So I just try to write as best as I can and describe what he was going through and how he was feeling and how he described his feelings. But some people would say he might’ve been manic depressive because he got by for months at a time with very little sleep, really felt like he seldom got more than three or four hours sleep a night, had this incredibly peripatetic schedule where he was on the road constantly, sometimes speaking in three cities in one day, giving sometimes six, seven lectures in a day, had trouble going to sleep at night, as I said, and would stay up with his staff members or with women talking, even drinking and smoking late into the night. So he was clearly dealing with a lot.
Obviously he had a busy, stressful job. But Coretta used the word “depression” too in our interviews, she said at times he was depressed. And we forget that when he learned that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, he got that news in the hospital. And he was not ashamed to tell reporters. In fact, he invited reporters to come to the hospital to interview him about the fact that he just got this award. And when reporters asked him why he was in the hospital, he said, I’m just exhausted. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me physically.
Anders Lee: Yeah, that’s a fascinating passage in the book, because he thinks he’s asleep and dreaming when he gets the news because he’s just been… Had to take a sleeping pill to finally go to rest. I’m wondering what his relationship was like with his mother, Alberta King?
Jonathan Eig: Yeah, Alberta was the opposite of Martin Luther King Sr. Martin Luther King Sr. is this very demanding, physically violent, unpolished preacher. And Alberta King is much sweeter, serene, loving, really seems to have this great psychological connection to her son, understands him in a way that maybe no one else does ever. And she’s just this joyful people person. You can really see the two aspects of King’s personality. And his mother and father are the yin and the yang. They seem like two different halves of his brain at times. And even though King is not really much of a feminist and never really appreciates the potential of women to contribute to the movement, he does appreciate his mother’s contributions.
Anders Lee: There’s a story early in the book that I think really captures the cultural landscape that ML is growing up within and really up against, and that’s the premiere of Gone With the Wind in 1939, which happens to intersect with the lives of the King family. How do they end up at that premiere?
Jonathan Eig: Yeah, Martin Luther King is 10 years old, and Gone With The Wind is the biggest movie maybe ever to come out of Hollywood in terms of the hype at that point. The book had been a massive bestseller. And they decided to have the premiere for the movie in Atlanta because the story is based on a plantation near Atlanta. And Clark Gable and Vivian Lee, all these Hollywood stars, directors fly in from Hollywood to be there. And it’s the biggest cultural event in Atlanta history, and the city rolls out the red carpet. And they ask Black people who are not invited to come to the movie premiere, but they’re invited to serve as waiters, as busboys, as dancers, as entertainers.
And Martin Luther King’s church is invited to perform at the premiere, but they are asked to dress as enslaved people and to play the part of enslaved people to reenact some of the scenes from the movie. And Daddy King accepts the invitation and says that his church choir will perform. And a lot of Black leaders in Atlanta are horrified by this. They say, why would you celebrate slavery? And why would you allow a Baptist choir to appear at an event where there’s dancing and drinking, anyway? Forget about the slavery part, it’s bad enough, because dancing, even, is a sin.
So Daddy King says, I think the movie gets a lot of it right. And it’s a big deal, and he wants to impress the city founders, he wants to cozy up to the mayor. So he agrees to have his church choir perform. And if you look closely at the pictures from that day, you can see this row of children dressed as slaves sitting in the front of the choir singing. And one of those kids dressed up and singing and pretending to be a slave is Martin Luther King Jr. at the age of 10.
Anders Lee: Wow, who would’ve thought? Now, Martin Luther King Jr. was a very strong student, he graduated from Morehouse in Atlanta age 19 with a sociology degree. What then went into his decision to follow in his father’s footsteps and attend the seminary?
Jonathan Eig: Right. King starts at Morehouse at the age of 15, he skipped several grades, he’s really terrifically bright, but also he suffers a little bit from missing all those years. Some of his basic reading and writing skills are a little weak, his math is weak. He’s always going to be making up for that throughout the course of his life, but everybody can tell that he’s incredibly intelligent.
And at first he’s thinking about maybe going into the law, he thinks about medicine for a while. He wants to be involved in the fight for justice. He wants to be involved in improving the plight of Black people in America, but he’s not sure how he wants to do that yet. And like a lot of us, he doesn’t want to do whatever his father did. So his father was a preacher and, oh, there’s no way I’m going to do what my old man does. And he’s a little embarrassed by his father, because his father’s a very emotional preacher who stomps and shouts, and young Martin Luther King Jr. sees himself as more of an intellectual.
But gradually he’s pulled to the church, he’s pulled to the preaching anyway, and he goes off as a high school student to work on a tobacco farm in Simsbury, Connecticut, and volunteers to lead the prayers there. And he’s been watching preachers all his life, he’s been practicing in front of the mirror giving sermons. They practiced baptizing pets and doing funeral services for their pets. It’s in the family, it’s hard to avoid. And little by little he just finds himself pulled toward it gravitationally. And really, I think he just senses that this is what he was made to do, even though he resisted it for a while.
Anders Lee: Right. And it seems that eventually he takes on his father’s style. You note that at Crozer, where he first studies seminary, King gets As in philosophy, but he gets Cs in public speaking due to his Southern Black preaching style. And this is a lighter example of a theme throughout the book, and that’s frustration with Northern racism. How did he learn to grapple with that?
Jonathan Eig: King goes to the North for the first time when he’s doing that tobacco farming, and he’s amazed at the freedoms there, that you can dine in any restaurant, that you can sit anywhere you want in a movie theater, but he learns very quickly that the North has its own kind of racism. And sure enough, as you point out when he goes to Crozer and studies, he finds that these white professors don’t really like the Black style of preaching that he’s grown up hearing in the South. So he learns to adapt to that a little bit, but he never wants to really shed his identity or shed his roots, and he’s trying to strike that balance.
And even when he goes to graduate school in Boston to get his doctorate at Boston University, he finds that it’s hard to find housing because so many of the landlords there discriminate against Black people. So he’s learning very quickly that the North may seem like it’s more integrated, but the racism is just as pernicious in many ways, and it’s just better camouflaged.
And this becomes a theme throughout his life. People say that King doesn’t really begin speaking out against Northern racism until 1966 or so, but I don’t think that’s true. I think he’s speaking out about it all the time, and we just don’t really pay attention to it until later in his career.
Anders Lee: And your book really does humanize King, as you mentioned, by showing sides of him that are far from perfect. Early in his academic career there are a couple incidents of plagiarism, also his relationship with his wife Coretta, who he meets at Crozer, that marriage has some uncomfortable truths about it. Much of this has been documented already, but did MLK Jr.’s infidelity, and, frankly, his misogyny, disappoint you personally, and was that hard to dwell in?
Jonathan Eig: Yeah, it was disappointing and hard to dwell in, but it’s not for me to judge. And I think it was disappointing and hard for Coretta more than anyone else, and I tried to, in this book, really explore it and not shy away from it, but also I didn’t want to wallow in it. I think what’s most important about King’s marital infidelities is the way that the FBI weaponized that to try to destroy him, to undermine the entire Civil Rights Movement. But it’s important to put it in context, and it’s important to know what Coretta was up against, what she had to deal with, and just how difficult their marriage was.
But it’s also, I think, important to remind folks that our heroes are not going to be perfect. If we expect them to be perfect, we’re not going to have any real heroes. And we can’t hope to emulate our heroes if we demand perfection of them. So King absolutely had his flaws, and that’s just something that I hope readers will read and absorb, but also help appreciate him all the more.
Anders Lee: Yeah, one thing that was, I guess, hard to learn is that Coretta was an organizer in her own right. And as you know, that’s what attracted King to her initially. But then after they get married, he’s very adamant that she not continue that part of her life. Why does he insist that she become a traditional, domestic housewife?
Jonathan Eig: It is sad, because I think that’s really the number one thing that attracted King to Coretta, was that she’d been to Antioch College, she had this great resume. She was more of an activist than he was at the time they met. And I think that really turned him on in all the best ways. Here’s this beautiful, intelligent, talented woman, and she’s on the front lines fighting to kill Jim Crow, fighting to end war, fighting to make this world a better place, I think he was enormously attracted to that. And then when they got married, he said, no, you got to stay home, you got to raise the kids. There’s no place for you on the front lines of the movement. And she was very upset about that.
I found some tapes that she made just after King died, when she began working on her memoir. And in these tapes, over and over again she says, and this too, I had to accept. And this too, I had to accept. She had to move back down to the South, because that’s where he wanted to preach. She had to give up her singing career after getting a degree from the New England Conservatory of Music. Then she had to give up her teaching career. She thought, well, maybe if I can’t be a performer, I can at least teach music. She had to give that up too.
And then when she says to her husband, I want to be doing more. There are other people who can watch the kids. I want to get out on the road, I want to be involved in these marches. And he says, no. And she says, but I feel called by God to do this. And he says, no, that’s not what God expects you to do, it’s not what I expect you to do. I expect you to stay home and take care of the kids.
And this was not just a part of King’s relationship, it was a part of his organizational leadership. He did not appreciate the value of women in the movement. And others called him out on it too. Other women who might’ve been great assets as leaders of King’s organization were shunned and put off to the side. And King’s organization suffered for that, it was a real blind spot. Partly you can blame it on the time he was born, the fact that he’s born and raised in the Baptist Church, but you’d like to think that one of our great leaders for equality would’ve recognized that women’s equality was an issue too.
Anders Lee: Well, we think of King as synonymous with the 1960s, but he was also very well known in the ’50s. You note that there was even some interest from Hollywood for a point at the end of the decade. How and when does MLK Jr. become a national figure?
Jonathan Eig: It happens very quickly in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King is not looking to be a leader, he’s just taken over this new church, he’s got a new baby, he’s finishing up his doctoral dissertation. And he’s asked to give, basically, the lead address, the big speech on the first night of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And a star is born, the audience just resonates, is absolutely drawn to this guy, and the national media follows. And they find that he’s just the perfect man for this moment.
He’s intellectual, he’s emotional, he can debate with anybody, he’s educated in the North, but he comes from the South. He’s got this voice that just really compels everyone to pay attention. Even if you disagree with him, you have to stop and listen, because he’s combining the Bible and the Constitution in this way that’s almost impossible to argue with; If we are wrong, the Constitution is wrong. If we are wrong, the Bible is wrong. Well, we must be right. And people are following him.
And in that moment, people from all over the country recognize that this is a game changer. And a lot of activists who’d been frustrated that they hadn’t been able to really get their message out nationwide, say, this guy can be the one who helps us. So all of these other activists from all over the country begin coming to Montgomery and saying, Dr. King, we need you. We need you to take this and make it national. Take what you’re doing in Montgomery and help the rest of the world see it. And it’s clear that he’s got an ability that really nobody has had before to reach the masses.
Anders Lee: And the Montgomery Boycott, that seems like one of the first points when he’s really running against the limits of liberalism. And not just white liberalism. There’s a passage in the book where King is attacked very viciously by Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who’s a Black New York congressman around this time. How did King navigate tension with his allies to his immediate right?
Jonathan Eig: It’s funny, because I guess anytime someone new emerges as a powerful force, there’s going to be resentment from the old guard or from other sides of the equation. And King is really, almost from the beginning, taking it from all sides. If he’s able to speak to the establishment, if he’s able to reach white people, well, then certain other Black people are going to be miffed that he’s too mainstream, they start calling him an Uncle Tom almost from the beginning.
And he’s a threat to other people’s power base. So Adam Clayton Powell, or leaders of the NAACP see this guy and they say, wait a second. If he becomes the main spokesman for Black people in America, where does that leave us? How is that going to affect our power base? The NAACP is worried that King’s organization is going to drain support from them. So there’s constantly this struggle, and I think it’s true for anybody who emerges suddenly into a position of great leadership and responsibility.
And King, really interestingly, never wants to be the Bigfoot, he never wants to just come in and say, well, too bad, I’m here now. You’re going to have to deal with me. He wants to keep everybody happy, he’s not somebody who likes conflict. And he’s almost afraid to speak to these elder statesmen and to challenge them. He never really can confront Roy Wilkins of the NAACP or Adam Clayton Powell, he’s always just looking to support and build coalitions. In some ways it’s surprising, because he’s obviously a great leader of protest, but he doesn’t like conflict, I think.
Anders Lee: Well, yeah, you mentioned on the other side there’s no shortage of tension between MLK and allies to what’s arguably his left. He’s widely remembered for preaching non-violence, but was his position more flexible and nuanced than people remember?
Jonathan Eig: Yeah, and I think he was much more radical than people remember. And what happens is folks like Malcolm X see an advantage in casting King as conservative. So Malcolm X calls him an Uncle Tom and calls him Rev. Dr. Chicken Wing and all of these other things to suggest that he’s in the white man’s pocket. And that serves Malcolm well, because it makes him appear to be the more radical, the more dangerous figure, and helps him attract support from especially the grassroots, people in the cities who may not be drawn to Kings more Southern-based organization.
And that’s doing King a disservice, it’s intentionally neglecting just how radical and just how courageous he is. But I think Malcolm knows exactly what he was doing, and even apologizes at one point, says to Coretta, I know that if I put myself out there as the more dangerous alternative that it might make people more inclined to negotiate with your husband. So maybe let Dr. King know that I am on his side, that I support what he’s doing.
Anders Lee: Yeah. Well, on the Malcolm X point, this book has made some headlines about a revelation over a King quote on Malcolm X. What can you tell us about that storied Playboy interview from later on? And would you say the two men were growing closer in their thinking before each of them died?
Jonathan Eig: I think there’s no question they were growing closer. In fact, James Baldwin said that they were fairly indistinguishable in their political views by the time they were killed. And there’s no question that King was growing more outspoken and willing to confront issues like economic inequality, police brutality. And Malcolm was more interested in engaging in politics after he broke from the Nation of Islam. So I think they were coming together.
But the media had a great interest in casting them as antagonists. And that’s where this Playboy interview comes into play. King and Malcolm met only once. And the most famous quote we have from King of what he thought about Malcolm X is from this Playboy interview conducted by Alex Haley, who was one of the best known Black journalists at the time. And in this interview, King says that, “Malcolm’s fiery, demagogic oratory is doing a disservice and really brings nothing but pain and division.”
And King actually never said that. I discovered the original transcript of that interview. And King was asked about the Nation of Islam, and said that, “Their fiery, demagogic oratory brought nothing but pain and division.” But when asked about Malcolm X, he actually said, “Listen, I don’t think I have all the answers. I think Malcolm and I probably have a lot in common.” And that didn’t make it into the article, Alex Haley changed the quote. So I think it’s interesting to think about had they lived, had they begun to work together, what might’ve happened. They might’ve really presented a powerful force for change.
Anders Lee: Right. And as for King’s position on non-violence, he’s not a pacifist, he’s a strong believer in self-defense. Is that something that you feel has been glossed over in recent years?
Jonathan Eig: Well, I think King made the point many times that pacifism was not weakness, to stand up to your enemy and refuse to strike back takes great strength. And it’s like jiu-jitsu. You show that your moral superiority is more powerful than their hate. And it not only defeats your opponent, but it wins allies and shows that goodness, that righteousness is more powerful than hate. And that was the point that King was trying to make.
Anders Lee: One of the big themes in the book is King’s nemesis, the work of FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, who we now know had King monitored and was trying to undermine his work, really despised King and most of the Civil Rights Movement. When did that activity begin from the FBI, and when did the public find out about it?
Jonathan Eig: Well, when King was really rising to fame and power in the early ’60s, winning Time‘s Man of the Year and beginning to get invited to speak in Africa, it was clear that he was a national force to be reckoned with and was conferring frequently with the president. J. Edgar Hoover raised this alarm bell that King was associating with communists, and that’s really where it began, that King had a number of former Communist Party members on his group of advisors. And that concerned J. Edgar Hoover.
Hoover went to the Kennedy White House, went to Robert F. Kennedy in particular, and asked for authorization to begin tapping the phones of some of King’s associates, and then to begin tapping the phones of King himself, King’s office and home phones. And Robert F. Kennedy authorized those wiretaps. And the Kennedys warned King, they said, you’ve got these communists around you, and you need to cut your ties with them because it looks bad, and it’s going to raise suspicions. And this is a time of great paranoia in the country around communism. There was a genuine fear that Russia wanted to overtake democracy and overthrow America, so you can understand some of that paranoia.
But it becomes very clear quickly – And the Kennedys certainly knew this – That King was no communist, that he was trying to fight for democracy, trying to fight for capitalism. If anybody had a reason to try to grow disgruntled about the state of American democracy, it was Black people in America who were still denied the vote and still treated like second-class citizens. But King was trying to join the American democracy, he was trying to urge America to give Black people their full democratic rights. And it became clear from these wiretaps that King had nothing to do with communism.
But the wiretaps continued. And they became obsessed with King’s sex life when it became clear that he was not doing anything to threaten the democracy of this nation. And that’s where it gets interesting. Why did his sex life matter? Why did J. Edgar Hoover grow more obsessed? Why did they begin tapping more phones? Why did the presidents allow this? Why did the attorney general allow this? And I think it’s clear; it’s because J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI and other members of the administration see King as a threat to the establishment. It’s not about communism anymore, it’s about who holds power in America. And they liked the fact that white people had been holding power for a long time, and they wanted to keep it that way. And King posed a threat, because he posed a threat to the establishment, that the power structure in America might shift. And that was something that J. Edgar Hoover felt he could not allow to happen.
Anders Lee: And his sex life, which has come up, that was something Hoover tried to weaponize, but interestingly, the press who this was all disseminated to, did not write about this. What was the reason for not exposing King’s philandering?
Jonathan Eig: The FBI had not just the phones tapped, but was bugging his hotel rooms too. And they had tapes of King in hotel rooms with women, they had him on the phone talking to girlfriends, to mistresses. And they disseminated this information to the press, and the media would not run the story. And that’s in large part because back then there was a sense of privacy for public figures. Nobody wrote about Joe DiMaggio or Babe Ruth or President Kennedy’s affairs even though they were known. And even though King was not a president, the media, in general, decided to grant him his privacy. And I think the reason was that if they wrote about his sex life, they’d have to write about everybody’s sex life, including the mayor and the governor and their senators, and they wouldn’t do that.
At the same time, they could have written about the fact that the FBI was surveilling King, and they didn’t. And that’s a big moral failure, I think, on their part. But you also have to ask yourself, how did this affect the coverage of King? If every newspaper editor in America knew that King was a hypocrite when it came to preaching about morality, and that’s how the FBI portrayed it, how did that affect their coverage of him and his work over the years? And I think it had a real impact.
Anders Lee: Well, the other thing you mentioned, that Hoover tries to tar him with the charge of being a communist, which he adamantly denies. He’s also not a Marxist, which goes back to his days in school when he’s learning about it, and doesn’t really mesh with materialism for spiritual reasons. Is it fair, however, to call King a socialist or an anti-capitalist?
Jonathan Eig: No, I wouldn’t say that. I’d say he was interested in exploring alternatives to the American capitalist system as it stood. And certainly as a young man, he was interested in communism and reading about it, as most college students are. By the time he’s older – And he’s only 39 when he dies – But by the last few years of his career, he’s clearly frustrated with the capitalist system in America and feels like it is only reinforcing inequality. And he’s certainly been born out as right in that, because economic inequality has grown dramatically in America since the years that King was killed.
But he’s calling for more of a social democracy, something more like we see in Europe with higher tax rates, perhaps, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed income, a larger safety net, more social services, ways to make sure that nobody goes hungry, and maybe the wealthier taxed more heavily. He’s going in that direction, but in some ways he sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders in those last years of his life.
Anders Lee: Right, who was present at the “I Have a Dream” speech, which I want to ask about. That’s a touchstone we learn about in school, the March on Washington. What was the real story behind that? Are there aspects to it that kids today in school aren’t taught?
Jonathan Eig: We forget, first of all, that it was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, that it was really about economic inequality and fighting economic inequality, and that it was heavily backed by labor unions. And that at the time, there was a great deal of concern. Washington didn’t want it to happen. And 70% of white Americans opposed the March on Washington, thought that it was going to result in rioting. And the Kennedy administration was opposed to it too. The Kennedy administration, once they became aware that there was no stopping it, signed on and really supported it and helped make sure that it came off smoothly, and they deserve credit for that. But it’s important to remember that this was a threat, the March on Washington was seen as something dangerous.
And that King’s speech, which we remember now for “I have a dream”, was actually a really challenging speech. We only quote the safe part of it, we quote, “I have a dream. And I want my children to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.” But that was only the last part of the speech, the part that King improvised. The first part of the speech was when he talked about reparations, when he talked about economic inequality and police brutality. And it was really a cry for America to reconsider the injustices that were baked into the system.
Anders Lee: Well, you mentioned the Kennedy administration. I’m curious about King’s relationship with the Democratic Party. In 1960, I believe, his father endorses Nixon at first and then reneges. This is of course when the South is still solidly democratic, and that’s not just because of peanut subsidies. There’s an apartheid system that a lot of Democrats are upholding, and the Black vote is more mixed, more split. This changes with realignment, which King plays a direct role in enacting. How does he view the two parties as institutions?
Jonathan Eig: Well, King really refrains from, or tries to avoid getting involved politically, doesn’t want to endorse candidates, almost never endorses candidates. And he’s looking for alliances, he’s looking for everybody to come on board and support the fight for equal rights.
But when Kennedy reaches out to him in jail, and offers his support, and Nixon waffles, even though Nixon has a better track record on civil rights at that point, King becomes convinced that Nixon is untrustworthy and afraid to put his neck on the line. So Kennedy probably wins the election in large part because of the support of Black voters. And even then, King is deeply frustrated with Kennedy and feels like Kennedy is not giving the Black voters what they deserve, and he’s afraid still, after winning the election, to stick his neck out and to risk losing the support of white Southern voters.
So King feels his job is to put the pressure on presidents, whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat, I think he feels like the role he can play is making politicians do the right thing morally. And he always seems a little surprised that they won’t do the right thing morally on their own, that they have to be compelled. Maybe some people will say he was naive, it goes to show that he’s thinking like a preacher and not like a politician, that he expects people to act on what they believe. And he knows that the Kennedys believe in civil rights, and yet it’s not until Birmingham and Selma that he can really force them to do the right thing.
Anders Lee: Right. Now, in 1963 when Kennedy’s assassinated, that really affects King in a deep way, he thinks that’s going to be his fate, and is ultimately correct. Does his temperament, his attitude, his approach towards things change with that news?
Jonathan Eig: I don’t know if it’s just the news of Kennedy’s assassination, although that certainly was shocking to him and to everybody else. But King, as soon as he begins the Montgomery Bus Boycott, has his house bombed with dynamite. Soon after that, he’s stabbed in the chest by a woman in Harlem. Then after that, his house is shotgunned, and he’s constantly getting death threats. So it doesn’t take the Kennedy assassination for him to think, wow, this could happen to me too. And I think it does affect his attitude and his approach to his work. I think he feels like he doesn’t know how much time he has.
And on the one hand, he could easily step back, he could say, this is too dangerous. I’ve got a wife and family. I’ve done my part. It’s time for me to step aside. It’s not worth the risk anymore. Let someone else lead. But he doesn’t. He doubles down over and over because he believes this is what God has put him on earth to do and this is the responsibility he has, not just to God, but to his fellow citizens. And that he’s going all in, he’s willing to risk everything for what he believes in.
And that’s one of the things that I find so incredibly heroic about him. Over and over again, he’s got an opportunity to step back and to pause, to go off for a year and write a book or teach. And he’s getting it from all sides. The federal government is trying to stop him. Leaders on the left, Black leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael are complaining that he’s past his prime, they’re calling him The Lord as if he thinks he’s God, and they’re mocking him openly. He could easily say, fine, it’s your problem now. But he doesn’t, he keeps going, and knowing the risk. And that, to me, is just extraordinarily brave.
Anders Lee: Right. And one of the risks he takes is coming out against the Vietnam War very publicly, which even allies say is a bad idea. A lot has been made of his changing views on Vietnam, but is that actually accurate, was this a pre-existing view of anti-imperialism?
Jonathan Eig: I think it’s part of King’s growth as a man, as a thinker, as a believer in God, that he realizes that he can’t pick and choose his battles. If he’s going to be opposed to violence in America, if he’s going to stand up against hate, if he’s going to say to Black people in America, rioting is wrong, we don’t strike back, then he has to also stand up to what he calls the greatest purveyor of violence on Earth, which is the US military in particular, and its actions in Vietnam. So he’s trying to be true to his beliefs in the grandest possible way.
And again, not taking the safe out because he needs Lyndon Johnson’s support to accomplish what he’s fighting for in America, but he’s not willing to ignore Johnson’s war in Vietnam, and he’s choosing the moral right thing to do over the politically expedient right thing to do. And there’s this one conversation that we have a wiretap transcript, he’s talking to one of his best friends. And his friend says, I think you’ve gone too far on Vietnam. I think you’re hurting our fundraising abilities, you’re hurting our relationship with LBJ. And King, you can just practically hear the cry in his voice, he says, don’t you understand me? I’m not trying to do the most popular thing here. I’m trying to do the right thing. And it doesn’t matter if it ends up hurting me in the long run, I have to do what the Bible commands us, what my true inner beliefs are. And if that’s politically foolish, then I guess I’m politically foolish.
Anders Lee: And it’s a short time later that he’s tragically assassinated in Memphis, which, of course, is covered in the book. And I’m wondering, as a biographer, how did you arrive at the decision to not take a position on James Earl Ray’s guilt or innocence, and do you have a personal opinion on who was really responsible for King’s murder?
Jonathan Eig: Well, I thought long and hard about that, because whole books have been written on the conspiracy theories, and nobody’s proved anything. And my research – I’m a pretty good researcher, I didn’t think I was going to find anything, any smoking gun – But what’s really important about that assassination, two things really important. One, that King went to Memphis. Once again, he answers the call, when people are saying, don’t go, you’ve got bigger things on your plate right now. A bunch of striking sanitation workers is not important enough. And King says, no, it is important. This is about moral dignity, this is about workers being paid fairly for their work and being allowed to live safely, and it’s about racism. And I have to go there.
And then what’s really important about who killed Martin Luther King Jr. is that we did, our society did. Because we created the conditions. The FBI intentionally created the conditions in which somebody might feel like they were doing their country a favor by taking out Martin Luther King Jr.
Just months before the assassination, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI send a memo to every bureau office saying that, we have to worry about the Black Messiah emerging, the Messiah who has the power to unite the Black community in standing up to this system that they consider unjust. And the most likely man to lead that protest, the most likely Black Messiah is Martin Luther King Jr. And we must do everything possible to disrupt and to stop him from gaining that kind of leverage, that kind of power. And that’s pretty clear that you’re sending a message that we don’t want this guy around. And it’s no surprise that, under those conditions, somebody like James Earl Ray would think, I’m going to take a gun and I’m going to do my country a favor by getting rid of this guy.
Anders Lee: Well, rounding out, I know that there was a subject you wanted to interview for the book who said no, because she insisted that there’s too much stuff about King already, and there’s other aspects of the Civil Rights Movement that should be looked at more closely. In the process of writing this book, I’m sure there are many figures, but who’s someone in particular who sticks out who you think there should be more biographies of?
Jonathan Eig: Well, yeah, there have been wonderful books about the many people who worked beside King, who worked in support of the Civil Rights Movement. This is the greatest grassroots protest movement in American history. And the field workers, the people who were registering people to vote in Mississippi and Alabama, are great heroes. And that’s why Diane Nash didn’t want to talk to me. She felt like King gets enough attention, it’s time to focus on someone else. I would love to see another biography of Diane Nash, I would love to see a biography of Coretta Scott King, who has not yet received the kind of biography that she deserves. But I would also point people to books about Ella Baker, books about Septima Clark. There are some terrific books out there about some of the field workers who are leaders of their own right who don’t get the kind of credit that Martin Luther King does.
Anders Lee: And last question. I’m hesitant to ask if there are historical analogs to King today, but I think a lot about a quote from Obama from 2008 where he was asked, who would King support, would he support you or McCain? And Obama said, neither of us. Do you think that there are continuities, not necessarily parallels, but at least continuities from King’s day that are still alive today in American politics?
Jonathan Eig: There’s no question that King warned us about a lot of the conditions we’re facing today, and warned us that if we were not vigilant, if we did not stay active and engaged, if we did not fight for what we believed in, that we were going to lose power, that the forces of materialism and militarism were going to gain sway. And that’s where we are today. We’ve lost so much of our own ability to control our destiny because we’ve allowed corporations and government to have their way, and we don’t fight for ourselves anymore, we’ve been neutralized. And King warned us about that. He said we had to stay vigilant, we had to stay receptive to change, and we had to never give up hope that we could make a difference. And I think that, sadly, he saw a lot of our problems coming today.
Anders Lee: Well, that’s a good note to end on. The book is called King: A Life. Jonathan Eig, thank you for talking to me.
Jonathan Eig: Thank you.