Reviews for King: A Life

by Jonathan Eig

Publishers Weekly
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Martin Luther King Jr. went beyond meek nonviolence into far-reaching radicalism, according to this sweeping biography. Eig (Ali: A Life) gives a rousing recap of King’s triumphs as a civil rights leader—the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 march on Washington, the 1965 procession from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.—as well as his despondency later in the 1960s as his anti-poverty campaigns struggled and Black energies drifted from nonviolent protest toward armed militance and “Black power.” Contesting accusations by Malcolm X and others that King was an “Uncle Tom,” Eig casts him as a revolutionary 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. King is no saint in this complex, nuanced portrait—his plagiarism and womanizing are probed in detail—but Eig’s evocative prose ably conveys his bravery, charisma, and spell-binding oratory (rallying the Montgomery boycotters, “he called out in his deep, throbbing voice, and the people responded, the noise of the crowd rolling and pounding in waves that shook the building as he built to a climax”). It’s an enthralling reappraisal that confirms King’s relevance to today’s debates over racial justice. Agent: David Black, David Black Literary. (May)

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From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Eig (Ali, 2017) has a dream that Americans will remember more about our most famous civil rights icon than one, partially improvised speech. In the most comprehensive MLK biography to date, enhanced with newly released FBI records and unpublished memoirs, Eig digs deep into King’s family history, revealing the fortitude and racial trauma experienced by his grandparents and the indomitable church culture which forged his father. MLK Junior and Senior were devoted to each other yet clashed over doctrine and morality and disagreed over the role of the church and of clergy in social justice movements. Eig notes the influence of Morehouse College in strengthening King’s sense of Black self-worth and identity and of colleagues (and rivals) like Ralph Abernathy in developing King’s own theology of antiracism. Eig insightfully and forthrightly addresses critiques of King as a plagiarist and his relationships with women before and after his marriage to Coretta Scott. Most important, Eig refuses to “defang” King, instead pushing Americans to recognize the radical nature of his demands for justice and his resistance to not only racism but also militarism and capitalism. “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.”

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Definitive life of the champion of civil rights. Having placed Muhammad Ali in the canon of civil rights leaders with his 2017 biography, Eig turns to Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) in a monumental biography. He did not begin life with that name: His parents “named him Michael King, no middle name, no initial, no ‘Junior.’ They called him Little Mike.” Though small, he was a scrapper on the football field and basketball court, a smart and serious student who entered Morehouse College early and, having traveled north on a work program and seen the magic of desegregation, became committed to civil rights. The name change, writes the author, “was clinched during a 1934 trip to Germany, where King learned more about the sixteenth-century German friar.” King first forged the battle for civil rights in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955; in the 13 years he had left, he galvanized that struggle, carefully planning campaigns while refining his skills by, among other things, visiting India to study the nonviolent tactics of Gandhi. Though King “was a man, not a saint, not a symbol,” he was viewed both positively and negatively as the most important advocate of Black rights—a program he would expand to include an anti–Vietnam War platform and a widening effort to end poverty worldwide. That spread him thin, but not enough to elude the obsessive hatred of J. Edgar Hoover, who “saw King as the ultimate disrupter of societal norms.” That he was, even if he was seen as too conservative by some Black militants and too radical by many Whites. Unlike biographers hitherto denied access, Eig examined recently released FBI files to show that there is no evidence that King was a communist operative, as Hoover alleged, though the files do show “the extent and determination of the bureau’s campaign to thwart King.” An extraordinary achievement and an essential life of the iconic warrior for social justice. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal
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Award-winning biographer and journalist Eig (Ali: A Life) turns his lens on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68). Mining a trove of materials—many only recently available—augmented with voluminous archival work and hundreds of interviews for personal insights, Eig advances the already appreciable quantity of first-rate biographies and intensive scholarship on King. He also recovers the man, foibles and all, from the too often hollowed-out, sainted symbol that competing ideologies have sanitized for national observance. His 45 engrossing chapters depict King from his enslaved family's history in antebellum Georgia, his stern father's high expectations, and his soothing mother's calm warmth, through his April 1968 assassination in Memphis. The ambitious, anxious, contemplative, depressed, fun-loving, uncertain private King gets equal attention to the determined, eloquent, fearless public person in the spotlight. From his decrying state-sanctioned and vigilante violence to his stance against the U.S. war in Vietnam and his Poor People's Campaign, Eig notes it all and paints a thorough picture of King. VERDICT A must for readers interested in moving beyond clichéd catchphrases to see a more complete and complex King, the context of his charisma, and the creation and content of his character.—Thomas J. Davis