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Martin Luther King, Jr

MLK, Behind the Legend

In exposing his flaws, a new biography underscores his greatness.

During his 13 years as a civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. endured multiple hospital stays for what he called exhaustion; others near him called it depression. In the months before he was assassinated at age 39 in April of 1968, his distress was particularly acute. In addition to his usual foe—white supremacy in general and FBI Director Herbert Hoover in particular—King was under attack from fellow civil rights leaders frustrated with the limited success of his nonviolent approach to protesting for equal rights. Moreover, he had irritated an important ally—President Lyndon B. Johnson—by speaking out against the Vietnam War, an act that also irked many of King’s supporters in the media. A New York Review of Books article in 1967 dismissed King as no longer relevant. “Newspaper editorials questioned not only his patriotism but even his commitment to civil rights,” writes Jonathan Eig in his new biography, King: A Life.

If MLK died under attack from former allies, and full of doubt about his own usefulness, King delivers a kind of justice. A finalist for the National Book Award, King is the story of a Christian minister determined to bring a peaceful end to centuries of racist violence and oppression. Emerging in 1955 as a leader of the Montgomery bus strike started by Rosa Parks, King in the years that followed endured beatings, a knifing and about 30 arrests and imprisonments, not to mention a maniacal level of harassment and spying by Hoover. The first King biography since the ’80s, King rests upon a wealth of previously unpublished government documents, letters and oral histories, many from sources Eig met when researching his previous bestselling biography of Muhammad Ali. On the cover of its Sunday book review, The New York Times called the King biography “supple, penetrating, heartstring-pulling and compulsively readable.”

Unlike the popular image of King as the protesting poet who voiced one of the most powerful speeches in history—“I have a dream!”—Eig depicts a fully human MLK. In the book’s index, under “extramarital affairs,” 30 pages are listed. Knowledge about many such affairs came from the FBI, which used the information to try extorting King to drop his protests. He wouldn’t, any more than he would remain silent about what he perceived as the injustice of the Vietnam War. When his interests collided with his values, his values prevailed.

“We’ve mistaken King’s nonviolence for passivity,” Eig writes. “We’ve forgotten that his approach was more aggressive than anything the country had seen—that he used peaceful protest as a lever to force those in power to give up many of the privileges they’d hoarded. We’ve failed to recall that King was one of the most brutally divisive figures in American history—attacked not only by segregationists in the South but also by his own government, by more militant Black activists, and by white northern liberals. He was deliberately mischaracterized in his lifetime, and he remains so today.”

Universal Pictures has bought the rights to make King a movie, with Steven Spielberg as executive producer and Chris Rock as director. 

The Authors

Kevin Helliker

Partner, New York

Kevin is the Editor in Chief of the Brunswick Review. He joined Brunswick in early 2017 after a Pulitzer Prize-winning career at The Wall Street Journal, where he covered politics in London, served as a Bureau Chief in Dallas and Chicago and worked as a Page One Editor in New York.