Martin Luther King Jr book: Jonathan Eig humanises man behind pulpit – review

Martin Luther King Jr book: Jonathan Eig humanises man behind pulpit – review

by Suswati Basu
1 comment

In a literary landscape often overshadowed by hagiography, Jonathan Eig’s latest book embarks on a noble mission – to resurrect the man behind the myth and cast a new light on the iconic figure of Martin Luther King Jr. In this stirring work, Eig endeavours to liberate King from the shackles of oversimplified narratives, shedding a piercing spotlight on the multifaceted character who once stood at the pulpit, passionately advocating for justice and equality.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Martin Luther King Jr book by Jonathan Eig surrounded by books Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, Fear of Black Consciousness by Professor Lewis R. Gordon, The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris and photograph of Black Lives Matter movement by Mitch Epstein.
King: A Life by Jonathan Eig surrounded by images and books that reflect his past and future. Credit: Suswati Basu.

“[Those] closest to King saw his flaws all along and understood that his power grew from his ability to grapple with contradiction, to wrestle with doubt just as his biblical heroes did.”

Jonathan Eig, KING: A Life

Over the years, we’ve witnessed the gradual reduction of Martin Luther King Jr.’s profound political and philosophical complexity into mere catchphrases that neatly align with various ideologies. His “I Have a Dream” speech, a ubiquitous fixture in American history, has been regrettably dulled through overexposure. We’ve forgotten the stark urgency with which King implored America to confront its “unspeakable horrors of police brutality” and address the issue of economic reparations. We’ve overlooked the fact that King was not making idle wishes but impassioned demands.

Read: MLK Day: Books to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr

In his own words, he declared, “In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.” His nonviolence, too often misconstrued as passivity, was, in fact, a potent weapon used to force those in power to relinquish their entrenched privileges. King was a man of action, not merely a symbol.

Who is Martin Luther King Jr book author Jonathan Eig?


Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein, a prominent Canadian author, filmmaker, and social activist, is renowned for her incisive political analyses and unwavering commitment to ecofeminism, organised labour, leftist ideologies, and her critical scrutiny of corporate globalisation, fascism, ecofascism, and capitalism.

Doppelganger by Naomi Klein
Doppelganger by Naomi Klein
Doppelganger author Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein at Berkeley, California on 29 September 2014. Credit: Moizsyed.

With a string of best-selling books to her name, Klein’s literary contributions include “No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies” (1999), “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” (2007), “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” (2014), and “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal” (2020). These works, translated into over 30 languages, have garnered numerous prestigious awards, including the George Orwell Prize, the Sydney Peace Prize, and the Prix Voltaire.

Klein’s influence extends beyond the written word, as she is a frequent contributor to esteemed publications like The Guardian and The Nation. Moreover, she co-founded the climate justice organisation known as The Leap. In 2021, Klein assumed the role of UBC Professor of Climate Justice at the University of British Columbia and became the co-director of the Centre for Climate Justice.

Naomi Klein’s Awards

Her impact on the world is undeniably substantial, as evidenced by her inclusion in Time magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2005, her reception of the Sydney Peace Prize in 2011, her recognition with the Prince of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities in 2014, and her acknowledgment as one of Forbes magazine’s “100 Most Powerful Women in the World” in 2015.

Eig’s biography, a culmination of extensive research, draws from thousands of recently declassified FBI documents and a treasure trove of new materials, including personal letters, business records, White House telephone recordings, oral histories, and unpublished accounts from those close to King. The book also benefits from the discovery of Coretta King’s audiotapes and an unpublished memoir by the father of Martin Luther King Jr. Hundreds of interviews with King’s family members and close friends offer unprecedented insight, enriching this unparalleled portrait of the man and his times.

Unveiling a complex man

However, Eig takes us beyond the saintly façade, revealing King’s humanity with vivid clarity. The pages of this book breathe life into a man who, in addition to his noble pursuits, chewed his fingernails, berated quiz show contestants on TV, and kept his cigarettes hidden from his children. He owned a little white dog named Topsy and bore a chest scar, a memento from the removal of an ivory-handled letter opener lodged perilously close to his aorta.

“Today, his words might help us make our way through these troubled times, but only if we actually read them; only if we embrace the complicated King, the flawed King, the human King, the radical King; only if we see and hear him clearly again, as America saw and heard him once before.”

Jonathan Eig, KING: A Life

His skin was so sensitive he eschewed razors, and he struggled with sleep but excelled at napping. He grappled with chronic lateness and endured bouts of exhaustion and depression. King’s wicked sense of humour often juxtaposed with his role as a Baptist minister, and his dependence on Coretta, his wife, ran deeper than most realised. Despite the looming threat of FBI surveillance, he engaged in extramarital affairs, maintaining one such relationship for an extended period.

Read: Obama’s summer reading list revealed amid banned books outcry

In a poignant reflection about temptations, “like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” King acknowledged the duality within us all—our private selves concealed from public view, our daytime and nighttime lives diverging. He delved into the profound human struggle with hidden transgressions and the perpetual need for his God’s redeeming power. King’s words resonated with the universal experience of knowing truth but veering into deception, understanding justice but clinging to injustice, and comprehending love while harbouring hatred or unfaithfulness. He emphasised the commonality of this human condition, reminding us that even saints concede their inherent sinfulness. King’s humility shone through as he confessed, “Lord, be merciful unto me, a sinner.”

“the worst sinner in the world is the man who feels that he isn’t a sinner … I don’t know about you, but when I look at myself hard enough and deep enough and go on back from my public self to my private self, I don’t feel like crying out with the Pharisee, “I thank Thee, God, that I’m not like other men.” But I find myself saying, “Lord, be merciful unto me, a sinner.””

Martin Luther King Jr Sermon, quoted in KING: A Life

In this remarkable sermon, King steered clear of the traditional call for repentance, opting instead to illuminate the concept of grace. He conveyed that Christ extended grace to individuals despite their sins and even offered grace for America’s collective sin of racism.

However, King was no ordinary man; he believed himself to be chosen by a higher power to act, a calling he wholeheartedly embraced. His life was a testament to this unwavering commitment, and he was prepared to lay down his life for his cause.

Black Power vs quiet protest

Towards the end of King’s time, it becomes apparent in Eig’s work that his peaceful civil rights movement was not necessarily having the impact that he sought out to create. And that because hindsight is twenty-twenty, we assume that his work had continued seamlessly after his death. The truth is far more complex.

“For twelve years, he had held out “radiant promises of progress.” He had urged followers to maintain faith in the white community, in democracy. He had raised their hopes—and crushed them.”

Jonathan Eig, KING: A Life

For example, King confronted the stark reality that, within just three years of his iconic speech in Washington, D.C., his dream had “turned into a nightmare.” He bore witness to the enduring suffering of Black people, trapped in the throes of poverty and victimised by the persistently racist enforcement of the law. On top of this, the emergence of political activist Stokely Carmichael’s rallying cry, “Black power,” and the subsequent shift towards militancy within the civil rights movement, including King’s acknowledgment that his dream of American harmony was dimming, led to a harsh backlash from some quarters of the media.

Read: A Fever in the Heartland: cautionary tale of the KKK’s invisible hoods – review

Coretta, his steadfast supporter, consoled him, affirming that: “Nonviolence will be here when Black power and all the rest is gone.” However, there is something to be said about the fact that perhaps his civil rights protest only worked for a certain period of time, and needed different pockets of varied activism for it to come alive in this grassroots jigsaw puzzle. Although King was uneasy about Carmichael’s slogan and its escalating intensity, he didn’t outright dismiss it. In fact, he seemed more inclined to reject the slogan itself rather than the underlying philosophy.

King’s journey to Chicago and the Operation Breadbasket initiative, aimed at bolstering Black-owned businesses, hinted at his evolving stance. While steering clear of the term “Black power,” King increasingly championed the same issues Malcolm X had highlighted. The Baptist minister candidly admitted, “Unfortunately, when hope diminishes, the hate is often turned most bitterly toward those who originally built up the hope.” He recounted a disheartening incident in Chicago where he was jeered by Black power supporters.

For more than a decade, King had nurtured the radiant promise of progress, urging his followers to maintain faith in the white community and in the democratic ideals of the nation. Yet, he was painfully aware that he had raised their hopes, only to dash them. As he noted, his once-adoring followers had turned hostile because they were witnessing the dream they had so eagerly embraced devolve into a haunting nightmare.

Reclaiming King’s radicalism

In our classrooms, King’s teachings have been distilled into digestible soundbites, omitting the depth of his calls for systemic change. We hear of his dream of brotherhood and his aspiration for character-based judgment, but his fervent appeals for a profound transformation of the nation’s character, an end to materialism, militarism, and racism, remain sidelined. It is as King’s friend Harry Belafonte aptly notes, “In none of the history books of this country do you read about radical heroes.” Despite the many moving and notable moments in his story, the tragedy is also this: his death may have ended up being the falling stone needed to produce the avalanche that followed.

Read: A Few Days Full of Trouble: truth about Emmett Till murder will set us free – review

This biography may unsettle some readers, but it is a testament to the greatness of King that his closest associates long recognised his flaws. They understood that his strength derived from his ability to grapple with contradiction and doubt, much like the biblical heroes he admired. As Emerson astutely observed, “Great men… have not been boasters and buffoons but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it.”

In the landscape of American history, Martin Luther King Jr. has achieved an almost mythical status. His name graces streets, schools, and monuments across the nation, a testament to his enduring legacy. Yet, as Eig’s enlightening work underscores, this veneration has stripped MLK of his humanity, leaving us with a sanitised version of a man whose vision and convictions were far from uncomplicated.

If you liked this…

In the meantime, check out the episode with Fear of Black Consciousness author Professor Lewis R. Gordon.

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National Book Awards 2023 longlists: - How To Be Books September 16, 2023 - 10:46 am

[…] A Life by Jonathan Eig […]


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