A Complicated Portrait: A New Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Falls Short

Jonathan Eig's new take on King digs into the man's private life, but not so much the external factors that shaped King's life or led to his death.

By Mark Christian

King: A Life, by Jonathan Eig. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023. 688p, 9780374279295 $35.00, 9780374719678

Book cover of King: A Life, a new biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., featuring a photo of King's face in profile.

Positive mainstream publicity for this biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is palpable. Lauded as the first comprehensive examination of his life in over a generation, civil rights scholars have lined up to praise author Jonathan Eig, who, as a journalist, has also completed a biography of renowned boxer Muhammad Ali, similarly titled Ali: A Life (2017). Eig represents an array of elite white writers who tend to suffocate Black historical figures with their insipid representations that most often emasculate these famous personalities, yet are often given the highest accolades. Let me be frank, I derive from the generation of Dr. King’s children, born of color in the 1960s and having experienced many manifestations of individual and institutional racism during my lifetime. With my thirty-plus years’ tenure in academia, teaching and publishing in Africana studies with a focus on the eras of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, this review comes from the mind of a critical thinker deemed also a scholar of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and times.

That stated, given the praise for this problematic biography, which was not sanctioned by the King family, one should question why such a study garners such adulation. One reason might be that the book actually does more to obscure King rather than open new doors of discovery. The underlining focus is to vellicate readers with details of King’s sexual encounters and affairs, while ignoring the essence of the man under extreme scrutiny and harassment from the U.S. government, led by the vicious J. Edgar Hoover. Chapter 23, “Temptation and Surveillance,” encapsulates this voyeuristic turn, the opening sentence setting up King as a debauched philanderer: “In November 1962, King spent nine consecutive days in Atlanta [his hometown], but only two nights at home” (p. 270). Eig employs Ralph Abernathy in this chapter to establish King’s well-known extramarital relationship with Dorothy Cotton, who worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) under King’s stewardship. There is an insidious theme throughout Eig’s take on King’s personality that irks the sensibilities because it lacks balance. He cites Abernathy’s wife Juanita who stated about her husband, “My husband was trustworthy … He was not deceitful” (p. 273). The implication for readers is clear, that King, by contrast, was both untrustworthy and deceitful. Even when Eig attempts to deal King a moral hand, he pulls it back. For instance, when describing how King would play with his own and Abernathy’s children, Eig writes, “Martin played Candy Land and Monopoly with the children, never letting them win” (p. 274). There is not much subtlety in the way in which King is portrayed in this chapter as a complex man with a penchant for women and a cold heart, unable even to let children win a board game—essentially, a bad man and a bad husband.

Almost sixty years after King’s assassination, surely a biography of this man of non-violence should delve deeper into his murder, especially when there is ample evidence available.

Like many historical figures, King had his shortcomings, and Eig is sure to let readers know about his extramarital affairs and his bouts with depression. Yet, as Eig does point out, during his thirteen-year tenure as a civil and human rights leader, King was under immense pressure before being assassinated. Stress, as most able-minded people know, can be debilitating to both the mind and body. To be confronted with the intense enmity of both state and federal government officials as well as rank-and-file racists daily, is it any wonder King suffered with marital and other personal issues? However, Eig does not confront the depth of this intimidation toward King in any meaningful manner, a glaring omission. For example, the book does not deeply examine Hoover’s open hostility toward King—apart from the surveillance that covered King’s apparent infidelities, there is no analysis of Hoover’s determination to destroy King and the Civil Rights Movement. And yet, if one reads the memoirs of Harry Belafonte, Ralph Abernathy, and Andrew Young, three of King’s closest confidantes, along with that of his attorney Clarence B. Jones, Hoover’s hatred for King becomes profoundly apparent. Almost sixty years after King’s assassination, surely a biography of this man of non-violence should delve deeper into his murder, especially when there is ample evidence available. Instead, Eig refuses to contemplate so-called assassination conspiracy theories, sticking to a staid biographical account of King that covers his middle-class routes in Atlanta through to the fateful day in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, when a small-time criminal would take the rap for his murder.

Attorney William F. Pepper, the man who inspired King to focus on the Vietnam War, spent almost forty years producing three volumes of evidence examining the assassination of King. And yet, Eig ignores that comprehensive study, depriving this volume of genuine scholarly insight. One could argue this is tantamount to misrepresenting King’s life, particularly in a time when the public should be made aware of new evidence concerning such an important historical event. Before his death, King had long planned to bring an army of poor people to Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1968, an endeavor known as the Poor People’s Campaign, to demand an end to poverty and discrimination against many different cultural groups in the United States. This was to be a seminal event. In its lead-up, Senator Robert C. Byrd condemned the forthcoming march, and King, in a crucial political speech delivered on March 29, 1968, which set the tone to further discredit King ahead of his murder. Byrd stated in his address to Congress that King was a “self-seeking rabble-rouser” who only brought violence wherever he went. Hoover added to this by “upgrading” his negative FBI report on King for President Lyndon B. Johnson. None of this is conspiratorial but rather bona fide political discourse that led to the untimely death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and yet, this critical information and even more of political mainstream evidential material is missing from Eig’s biographical account.

No biography on King worth its salt can afford to bypass the question: who killed the preacher of non-violence and why?

Readers should consider this latest biography a medley of previous insights into King’s life while avoiding one critical aspect: his assassination. No biography on King worth its salt can afford to bypass the question: who killed the preacher of non-violence and why? Certainly, not in the present given the considerable right-wing shift in politics. There is much to be gleaned from examining a life as important as King’s was to the world. Yet, we should not ignore the implication of governmental forces that aimed to destroy this man during his lifetime with a range of insidious actors who actually did so. There comes a time, to paraphrase King, when silence is no longer possible on matters of grave importance. Eig fails to even consider King’s assassination and its fundamental purpose: to maintain the status quo and eliminate a leader working to develop a beloved community free from racism, poverty, and militarism, three powerful forces that are still at work today at the expense of many. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prescient figure and those who are responsible for keeping his name alive should also consider why such a man was taken from us way before his time.

Summing Up: Optional. Graduate students and faculty.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – North America

Mark Christian, Ph.D., is a professor in the City University of New York. He is a prolific writer in the fields of Africana studies and sociology.