- Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher, an activist, and a martyr, who led the civil rights movement and changed the course of American history. In this article, we will review King: A Life, a new biography by Jonathan Eig, that offers a comprehensive and revealing portrait of King’s life and legacy.
- If you want to learn more about King’s personal struggles, political challenges, and moral vision, as well as the newly declassified FBI files that shed light on his enemies and allies, then you should read King: A Life by Jonathan Eig.
King (2023) is a compelling biography of Martin Luther King. It tells the story of a man, not a saint, who had a remarkable career. His life was cut short at the age of 39, but in his 13-year career King’s vision of a United States based on equality and justice for all, lives on.
Introduction: Gain an understanding of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Table of Contents
Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged the US to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. King was a complex, and sometimes divisive figure who was often mischaracterized during his lifetime. He was no saint, he was a man with flaws who, for example, often cheated on his wife, Coretta.
At the same time, he lived according to God’s call and was willing to die for his cause. He challenged segregation and racism through nonviolent protest. He warned against materialism, nationalism, and militarism which he declared undermined morality and universal brotherhood.
In this summary, you’ll come to better understand King in the context of his times and his relevance today. His career may only have lasted 13 years, but he brought the United States closer to realizing its founding ideals of equality and justice for all.
This is his story.
Little Mike to Reverend Doctor King
Delia and Jim King, devout Christians, were sharecroppers who lived with their nine children in a shack 20 miles from Atlanta, Georgia. They were one generation removed from slavery and faced routine violence and racism from white people. Their second child, Michael, was born in 1897. He attended a rural school with a semi-literate teacher, as did the other King children. Sharecropping kept the family poor. In 1912, at the age of 14, Michael left home, barefoot, and headed for Atlanta.
He worked for a railroad company and was soon promoted from coal shoveling to firing coal for steam engines. He had a great desire to preach and by 1920 he was working regularly as a preacher. On Thanksgiving Day 1926, Michael married Alberta Williams, daughter of Reverend A. D. Williams and Jennie Celeste Williams. In early 1927, Reverend Michael King became associate pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, working alongside his now father-in-law.
That November, Alberta gave birth to their first child, Willie Christine. And around midday, January 15, 1929, their second child was born: Michael King. The couple called him Little Mike.
In 1934, following a visit to Germany where the Reverend King learned about Martin Luther, he adopted the name Martin Luther King and changed that of Little Mike to Martin Luther King, Jr., but the boy continued to be known as Little Mike, and, more often, M. L. at home.
Growing up on Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, M. L. often played with the white son of the local store owner. After starting school, their friendship began to fade. It was at the age of six that he first became aware of a race problem, as his friend told him that he could no longer play with Black children. His mum instilled in him, though, that he was “as good as anyone.”
L. excelled at school. He loved books, learned “big words,” and began to memorize Bible passages and hymns. In 1944, at the age of 15, M. L. gained early admission to Morehouse College. There, he was mentored by leaders like college president Benjamin Mays who imparted a social gospel philosophy calling for racial justice and nonviolent resistance to oppression. It was during his second year at Morehouse that M. L. decided he’d follow in his father’s footsteps and become a minister. He was formally ordained at the age of 19, on February 25, 1948. At his graduation from Morehouse, he was one of three students who received an oratorical prize. The report of the graduation in the Atlanta Daily World was the first time his full name, Martin Luther King Jr., was ever published.
After graduating, against the wishes of his father, King attended a predominantly white, nondenominational school, Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. There, he deepened his knowledge of peaceful protest theories from thinkers like Gandhi and Thoreau. He gained a bachelor of arts in divinity at Crozer and then went on to Boston University, in 1951 to pursue a doctorate. His choice of Boston was partly to study under Edgar S. Brightman who was known for his view of a personal God rather than an impersonal one.
After some rocky moments in their courtship, King married Coretta Scott on June 18, 1953. She’d go on to become a vital partner in his civil rights activism.
In August 1954, the Kings moved from Boston to Montgomery, Alabama, a city with deeply entrenched Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation of Black and white people in all public facilities. There, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was taken on as the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. That same year, the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, raising hopes for further racial progress.
In June 1955, King received his Doctorate of Philosophy in Systematic Theology from Boston University, becoming Reverend Doctor King.
As remarkable as his academic achievements were, his journey for what he would become was just starting.
Bus boycotts, civil rights, and assassination attempts
Now that we’ve revisited Martin Luther King Jr.’s background and early life, let’s dive into his rise as a civil rights movement leader.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, state secretary of the Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP, refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery city bus. She was arrested. As a result, E. D. Nixon, president of the local branch, Jo Ann Robinson of the Women’s Political Council, and other Black leaders decided to organize a boycott of the city’s buses. Soon after, King, as a newcomer to the area, was elected president of the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association. At a mass meeting, he galvanized the crowd with his gift of oratory, calling for peaceful protest and invoking God’s justice.
For over a year, Black people in Montgomery carpooled, walked, and made other arrangements rather than ride the segregated buses. King’s home was bombed by angry white people but he urged nonviolence in response. As the successful boycott continued month after month with Black residents holding firm, King traveled the country raising awareness and building solidarity for Montgomery’s struggle. Although the city tried intimidating protestors, they refused to back down.
King emerged as a national civil rights leader and icon for the movement. His charisma, courage, and message of nonviolent resistance energized the push for racial justice. The victorious year-long Montgomery bus boycott inspired further protests across the South and established King’s Gandhian model of civil disobedience that would shape the civil rights movement in the coming years. With growing media attention, King became the public face of a mass movement for dignity and equal rights that would soon sweep the nation.
As the boycott continued in 1956, King’s house was bombed again and he was arrested and jailed for organizing the protest. Later that year, the desegregation of buses was mandated by the Supreme Court. After over a year of boycotting, the Black people in Montgomery had achieved a major victory against segregation.
But any celebrations were short-lived. It took only two days after the end of the bus boycott, two days before Christmas, for someone to fire a shotgun at Martin Luther King Jr.’s home. Thankfully, nobody was injured. On Christmas Eve a Black girl was beaten by five white men while she was waiting for a bus. Snipers shot at buses, and two police officers even poured acid over Jo Ann Robinson’s car.
Emboldened by Montgomery’s achievement, Black activists across the South began organizing similar nonviolent direct-action campaigns against segregation. In Birmingham, minister Fred Shuttlesworth boldly led a bus boycott in his city. Just days later, 15 sticks of dynamite exploded under his home in a vicious assassination attempt.
In early 1957, seeing the urgent need for coordination and leadership, King helped establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – or SCLC. This network of Black churches and activists spearheaded strategic nonviolent campaigns for civil rights across the South. As the most visible leader of the Montgomery boycott, the charismatic King became the SCLC’s president.
Through 1957, King extensively traveled the country giving speeches to raise awareness and build support for the burgeoning civil rights movement. He met with President Eisenhower, to try to get his support for Black students seeking integration at Central High School, Little Rock – but his pleas landed on deaf ears. It took the intervention of jazz musician Louis Armstrong for the president to reluctantly enforce the integration order.
Although King’s sharp intellect, powerful oratory, and spiritual gravitas was establishing him as the preeminent national spokesperson for the movement, he was also facing harsh criticism and controversies. Rumors circulated about supposed communist ties due to friendships with Northern activists like Stanley Levison. The FBI began wiretapping King’s phone calls and surveillance that would last for years. Some critics also attacked the alleged moral and sexual failings of the Baptist minister.
King forged onward undeterred. In May 1957, he delivered his first major national address at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington DC, further raising his public profile as the acknowledged leader of the civil rights movement. The editor of the New York Amsterdam News, the biggest Black newspaper in New York, later wrote that King had established himself as “the number one leader of sixteen million Negroes in the United States. … the people will follow him anywhere.”
On September 19, 1958, King was in New York to promote his book, Stride Toward Freedom, and spoke at a rally to more than 6,000 people. The next day, at a book signing in Harlem, a mentally-ill Black woman stabbed King with a seven-inch-long letter opener. The blade cut into his aorta but didn’t sever it. Thankfully, nobody had attempted to remove the blade in the store, otherwise, King wouldn’t have survived the attack.
While recovering, Coretta recalled that King used the time “to rethink his philosophy and his goals, and assess his personal qualifications, his attitudes and beliefs.” He emerged with an even deeper commitment to achieving equality through nonviolent activism.
In February 1959, Martin and Coretta traveled to India. They were greeted with garlands and King declared that he’d come not as a tourist but as a pilgrim. On their first evening, over dinner with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, they learned that the Indian government had made prejudice against the untouchables a crime and ordered colleges and universities to give them preferential treatment in order to atone for centuries of injustice.
By now, the 29-year-old King was an established national figure guiding the push for racial justice through courageous nonviolent means.
Now, let’s see how his leadership role continued to grow in the coming years.
Jail time, Man of the Year, and a fatal shooting
On April 12, 1963 – Good Friday – King was arrested for demonstrating without a permit in Birmingham. While in jail, he wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” passages from which were subsequently published in the New York Post and the Christian Century. It spoke of being “extremists for love” and talked of America being a prison for Black people. At the time, it had no impact but would go on to become part of American history. King was freed after more than a week in jail. On May 10, an agreement was reached for phased desegregation in Birmingham, and all jailed demonstrators were released.
Amidst plans for more protests, in June 1963, King and other civil rights leaders had a meeting with President Kennedy. Kennedy wanted the protests to stop (particularly a march on Washington) while he built support for his civil rights legislation – a notion that was later rejected. After the meeting, Kennedy took King aside in the Rose Garden: he had concerns about some of King’s friends who he believed were communists. On his advice, King took action, but he continued to trust his friend, Levison.
In August 1963, King and organizers diligently planned a massive March on Washington, seeking meaningful civil rights laws and economic reforms. On August 28, over 200,000 peaceful protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial as King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, envisioning an America of equality and racial harmony for all citizens, regardless of skin color.
Later in 1963, King was named Time’s Man of the Year but faced growing FBI smears regarding alleged extramarital affairs. Two years later, in early 1965, King received an anonymous threatening letter and a tape recording from the FBI suggesting he take his own life or risk exposure of his personal conduct. But King courageously refused to bow to these intimidation tactics.
In Selma, Alabama in early 1965, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference escalated nonviolent protests demanding federal voting rights protections for Black people. On March 7, Alabama state troopers viciously attacked peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in an incident now referred to as Bloody Sunday. The national outrage over the brutal violence helped build overwhelming public support for legislation protecting voting rights. Soon after, President Johnson pledged to guarantee voting rights for all citizens with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In 1966, King shifted focus to economic exploitation, housing discrimination, and racial injustices negatively impacting African Americans in northern cities like Chicago. He faced criticism from some civil rights supporters for expanding his activism beyond core issues into vocal opposition to the Vietnam War. In April 1967, King gave a bold speech at Riverside Church in New York denouncing the war in moral terms as unjust and diverting resources from needed domestic reforms.
In late 1967, King announced plans for the Poor People’s Campaign to bring together impoverished Americans from diverse backgrounds to occupy the National Mall, peacefully disrupting Washington DC to demand economic justice. But morale within the civil rights movement declined amid urban riots that seemed to undermine nonviolent protest. King struggled to maintain strategic unity and direction as the movement’s goals broadened.
In early 1968, King went to Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike protesting dangerous working conditions and poverty wages. The workers were predominantly Black people, so King saw this labor struggle as part of his mission for economic justice. On April 3, he gave his prophetic “Mountaintop” speech, envisioning the struggle for justice continuing beyond his lifetime.
The next day, at sunset on April 4, King was fatally shot in the neck by a sniper while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. He was wheeled into the emergency room of St. Joseph’s Hospital just 11 minutes after he was shot, but less than an hour later he was pronounced dead.
King’s assassination at age 39 sent shockwaves across the US and the world. Over 130 American cities erupted in riots within hours of the news with more than 10,000 arrests. His courageous leadership of disciplined nonviolent protest had exposed the brutality of segregation and helped secure landmark civil rights legislation outlawing discrimination based on race. Though the FBI smear campaign tried discrediting King as a “notorious liar,” he remained steadfast in his principles.
In death, King’s legacy continues to powerfully inspire later generations. He had a dream of building a more just society true to the American promise of equality and freedom for all people. That dream is still alive today.
Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in a deeply segregated society, aware of racial injustices from a young age. Despite challenges, he excelled academically and was drawn to the ministry. His leadership role emerged during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where his eloquent advocacy for nonviolent protest gained national attention.
King later founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and led protests for voting rights, economic justice, and against racial discrimination. Despite facing threats, arrests, and FBI surveillance, King remained steadfast. His “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington has become iconic. King’s efforts helped pass significant civil rights legislation but faced growing challenges, including criticism for opposing the Vietnam War and broadening his activism.
Tragically assassinated at 39, King left an enduring legacy as a civil rights leader, influencing generations to fight for racial equality and social justice through nonviolent means.
History, Politics, Biography, Memoir
The book is a comprehensive and compelling biography of Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who changed the course of American history. The author, Jonathan Eig, is a journalist and best-selling author who has written acclaimed biographies of Muhammad Ali, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Al Capone, and the inventors of the birth control pill. He spent five years researching and writing this book, based on hundreds of interviews and thousands of newly discovered documents, including recently declassified FBI files.
The book covers the entire life of King, from his birth in Atlanta in 1929 to his assassination in Memphis in 1968. It reveals King as a complex and contradictory human being, who struggled with his own flaws and doubts, but also displayed remarkable courage and vision. It shows how King emerged as a leader of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, and how he became the voice of the nonviolent resistance movement that challenged racial segregation and discrimination in the South. It also shows how King expanded his vision to address the issues of poverty, war, and injustice in the North and around the world.
The book portrays King as a radical who reshaped the South with his integrationism, became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War despite losing political support and drawing the ire of the FBI, and developed a deep critique of systemic racism and economic inequality that called for reparations for slavery and a guaranteed minimum income. It also portrays King as a human who had a troubled marriage, faced accusations of plagiarism and infidelity, suffered from depression and anxiety, and endured constant threats and harassment from his enemies.
The book is divided into four parts:
- The Formation of a Leader: This part explores King’s childhood, education, and early ministry, highlighting the factors that shaped his leadership style and vision.
- The Battle for the South: This part covers King’s rise to prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and his subsequent leadership in the civil rights movement, including the March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery Marches.
- The Struggle for the North: This part examines King’s later years, as he expanded his focus to include issues of poverty, housing, and Vietnam War protests, and faced increased opposition and criticism from both white and black Americans.
- The Final Year: This part provides a detailed account of King’s final year, including his assassination and the aftermath, as well as the impact of his death on American society.
I found the book to be very informative and inspiring. The author writes in a clear and engaging style that makes the book easy to read and understand. He uses real-life examples and stories to illustrate his points and make them relatable. He also includes exercises and questions at the end of each chapter to help the reader practice and apply the concepts. The book covers a wide range of topics that are relevant and useful for anyone who is interested in King’s life and legacy.
The book is not only educational but also motivational. It encourages the reader to take action and make positive changes in their society through nonviolent resistance. It also reminds the reader that they are not alone in facing injustice and oppression, and that they can overcome them with courage and faith. The book is not only a valuable resource but also a supportive companion that can help you achieve your goals and dreams through King’s example.
One of the strengths of the book is Eig’s ability to humanize Jordan, revealing him to be a multifaceted and sometimes flawed individual. Eig sheds light on the personal struggles and challenges that Jordan faced throughout his life, from his difficult childhood to his later years as a successful businessman and father. This provides a more nuanced and relatable picture of Jordan, and helps to illuminate the factors that drove him to succeed.
Another strength of the book is its historical context. Eig places Jordan’s life and career within the broader context of American society and culture, and provides insightful analysis of the social and cultural factors that shaped his life and success. This includes discussions of the rise of cable television and the NBA, the evolution of basketball as a sport, and the impact of marketing and branding on Jordan’s image and career.
One potential criticism of the book is that it may be too focused on King’s personal life and relationships, rather than his political and social activism. However, this focus is ultimately a minor criticism, as the book provides a rich and detailed portrait of King’s life and legacy that is both informative and engaging.
Overall, “King: A Life” is a comprehensive and engaging biography of Michael Jordan that provides a detailed and nuanced understanding of his life and career. Eig’s writing is informative and insightful, and the book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the life and legacy of one of the greatest athletes of all time.
In conclusion, “King: A Life” is an excellent biography that provides a comprehensive and nuanced look into the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. The book is well-researched, well-written, and engaging, and it is an essential read for anyone interested in the civil rights movement and the life of one of its most influential leaders.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a comprehensive and compelling biography of Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader who changed the course of American history. The book is suitable for both general readers and scholars, as well as for students and educators. The book is not only a landmark biography but also a tribute to King’s life and legacy.