As he enters the doors of Ella Elli, the Provence-and-Nice-inspired boutique restaurant in Lakeview, Jonathan Eig steps to the bar with a smile on his face. It’s a smile that over the course of his thirty-five-year career has come to define him. The hug is warm, as his hugs always are when we meet; the discussion provocative, as our discussions always are when we speak. The New York Times best-selling author and “master storyteller,” as Emmy and Grammy award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns refers to him, eases into a chair before he is seated in a booth to discuss his latest project, a 688-page epic on the life of America’s Jesus, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For six years Eig transformed himself into something more than a biographer. Combing through previously unreleased documents of King’s life to present the martyr as someone who is far greater—and more complex—than the dream he once told the world he had. “But in hallowing King we have hollowed him,” Eig writes toward the end of the book, setting the perfect stage for a four-hour conversation about how the biography he is about to release to the world is not just a story about the soul of a man but the soul of a country destined to assassinate his destiny.
Of all of the King bios I’ve read, Stephen Oates’ “Let The Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr.” and Ho Che Anderson’s “King: A Comics Biography: The Special Edition” are the pinnacles. That said, the other two books I reread in preparation for this conversation were Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” and your “Ali: A Life.” Just based on how their three lives historically have been and are intertwined.
It’s crazy, isn’t it? And I spent a lot of time thinking about that because I’m not a trained historian, I’m a journalist like you, but I started writing these history books and I started seeing history in these different ways. How people’s lives overlap in ways that you couldn’t imagine. I grew up as a kid as a huge Ali fan, so it totally made sense as to why I’d want to write an Ali book. And then you start learning how Ali and Malcolm X obviously were essential to each other’s lives; [how they were] brothers, truly brothers and how Malcolm’s impact on Ali was enormous. And then here comes Martin Luther King, who meets Ali twice and only meets Malcolm once. And yet their lives are so connected—not tangibly, like they don’t relate to one another at all, but the forces that are affecting them are so directly related. Malcolm has the FBI breathing down his neck, King has the FBI literally almost trying to kill him and yet they are rivals. There are all of these fabulous layers. And what you begin to appreciate is how history is so beautifully complicated and how our understanding of it changes constantly.
I also wanted to give myself a barometer to say, “if Jonathan comes with anything on those levels then…” So how do you feel about the six years you spent immersing so deep into Dr. King’s life?
I think it’s the most invaluable six years I’ve ever spent outside of raising kids. Because first of all I recognized right away that there were still a lot of people alive who knew Dr. King and I had a chance to go around the country and speak with them. So even if I didn’t write a book that would be a great use of my time. And that’s what really got me going. I was already talking to people like Dick Gregory, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte for the Ali book, so I had their numbers and it occurred to me that there’s nothing more important that I can do with this time and my tape recorder than go and interview these people while they are still here about Dr. King. That’s also when I realized Oates’ book was, at that point, thirty-five-years old. And while it’s a very, very good book, thirty-five—now forty-one—years is much too long. King needs a new biography every five or ten years. Because the times change.
True, I agree, but the story doesn’t change. King’s life is King’s life. So does it become a matter of the writer who writes the biography? Whose hands King’s story is in?
Yes. It depends on who does the book, that’s why I feel it’s important. I hope that after my book, five or ten years from now, somebody else does another one. Because history doesn’t just take place in the past, it takes place in the present so it looks different. If I wrote this book before George Floyd it would look different; if you write this book five years from now it’s going to look different because King’s meaning to our world changes as society and the world changes. And King’s meaning changes depending on who is telling the story. I’d like to see someone do a Coretta book as soon as possible, I’d like to see some writers of color write about Dr. King. I don’t think there’s ever been a woman to write a biography on King, I’d love to see that. Bring it on, we need more. And that doesn’t apply to everyone. We don’t need a Lou Gehrig biography every five to ten years because not that much has changed in terms of how we relate to that story. But Martin Luther King is one of the central figures in our history and if you don’t think that his meaning is changing year-to-year, month-to-month, and how we relate to him and understand what we can still learn from him, then you aren’t obviously paying attention.
So my overall question would be: Did you write this book to humanize the myth of Dr. King or humanize the martyr?
Humanize the man. They held up that sign in Memphis: “I AM A MAN,” and it’s so powerful yet so sad that after twelve years into the Civil Rights Movement you still have to say the most basic thing of all, that “I am a man.” That they still had to remind people that they are human. The fact that King is still treated like this two-dimensional object, this monument, this Hallmark card, this holiday… We forget that he was a man, he was human, he was flawed and how we’re afraid to deal with those flaws. That was my number-one goal, to humanize the man and remind people that he was a man because when we remember that he was a man it makes what he did more powerful. And then, examine why we turned him into a myth and let’s examine why we turned him into a martyr. Let’s also look at our own role, our government’s role into turning him into a martyr.
Were you afraid of what the outcome of that might be, or over the course of doing the book did you become comfortable with it?
I’m still afraid of it [laughs]. [For the most part] It’s sacred ground. People are going to read it and people are not going to want to know that this saint, this prophet did some things that he wasn’t proud of… Some things that make us cringe. And I worry that I’m going to be blamed for sharing that as the messenger. But I feel like if I didn’t do that, then people wouldn’t trust me.
Well, let’s get to it: Does part of that have to do with your race? Does your being white and not being Black play a role in you being bothered by how your message will be received?
I think I’d be bothered by it regardless of my race, but because of my race I probably am a little more sensitive. I’m conscious of it and the role it can play. I’m not Black, King’s not necessarily my saint, he’s the Black community’s saint and deservedly so. I’m an outsider in this context and I accept that and I tried to work really hard to do what I could to compensate for that, but the fact is I went into this project knowing and understanding that and for me it was worth taking that chance. I don’t care what people say about me or if I get criticized for it, my responsibility is to the story, to do right by him and to do right by my readers and doing right by the truth.
There was a sequencing in the book that I’m not sure most people, I don’t want to say weren’t aware of, but I’ll say probably didn’t put together: In June of 1955, King receives his PhD from Boston University, thus officially becoming “Dr. King”; August 1955, Emmett Till is killed; November 1955, Coretta gives birth to Yolanda; ten days later Rosa Parks hears Reverend T. R. M. Howard’s “Mississippi Shame” speech; December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refuses to sit in the back of James Blake’s bus; five days later on December 5, 1955, Dr. King delivers his “Day of Days” speech which is considered the day he found his voice as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Did you realize the layering of those events as you were writing it, because you presented it in the book as stair-step moments?
I discovered it as I was writing it and it blew my mind. When I read—because I didn’t discover this—that Rosa Parks was at Howard’s lecture and heard about Emmett Till and… First, Emmett Till radicalized—and I say this positively—so many people, sparked so many people, I believe he sparked Muhammad Ali, he sparked Rosa Parks. That’s what’s beautiful about history, Rosa Parks happened to be at that lecture, now she was already radicalized, she was already working for the NAACP, but something pushed her that day and on that day she was ready to take that stand and refused to get out of her seat on that bus and Martin Luther King happened to be in Montgomery at that time and he happened to be the person they picked—all of these things seem coincidental, it’s unbelievable how those forces aligned. The right things happened at the right place at the right time. All happening one after the other as if God had his hand in it. King even said God called him to do this. Now I believe the Civil Rights Movement would have happened, but I don’t think it would have happened the way it happened if Emmett Till hadn’t happened and Howard hadn’t come to Montgomery right after that and had Rosa Parks not attended that lecture and if Dr. King hadn’t been there. Just one simple shift could have made everything different. Because if it had been Ralph Abernathy there in Montgomery instead of King, I don’t think it takes off the way that it did. Ralph Abernathy is one of my heroes, but I don’t think [with him] it becomes what it became, I don’t think it becomes this national and international phenomenon if Martin Luther King doesn’t take that job at that time in Montgomery. And King was so perfect for that moment. I really don’t believe anyone else could have made it happen that way. Even only being twenty-six-years old at that time. Amazing.
What role do you feel Dr. King’s father played in his nonviolent, non-confrontational approach to life?
I am obsessed with Daddy King. I’d love to do a book on Daddy King. He, too, is one of my heroes. He’s the one who got off the farm, quit sharecropping, comes to Atlanta, teaches himself to read and write, becomes a preacher and makes it possible for his son to take it to the next level. But he’s also a violent person. He beats his children—someone who was abused by his own father, who was an alcoholic and an abuser—so for his son to evolve through that, take the baton and to do it nonviolently, I think, is a direct response to his father. A lot of what Martin Jr. is doing, did, is in response to Daddy King. He went to the seminary because his father felt it was a bad idea, he wants to become a doctor because his father felt he didn’t need it. So when his father comes to Montgomery when he and Coretta’s house was bombed and he tells him to, “Get your family, take your baby, take your wife and get the hell out of here and come back to Atlanta, this is insane,” King Jr. tells him, “I’m staying.” And part of that is in direct opposition to his father. That’s him saying, “I’m different from you.”
But Jonathan, those are his actions. I’m talking about his principles, his philosophies. Because King Jr. stayed true to never being confrontational in a way that really was held against him—especially in the Black community—to a certain degree. Here he is the son of a preacher man and it was almost as if he put God first and said, “God is going to work this out.”
I think that’s a really interesting point and one of the interesting things as well as one of the things that frustrated people with King was that he was non-confrontational. Here he is the greatest rebel, possibly, in American history and he doesn’t like confrontation? Although he defied him, he was afraid to confront his father. He learns to deal with his father by just trying to pacify him, but he never confronts him. He can’t stand up to his old man. Which I think is fascinating. You can just see the sort of torment going on within King and how he struggles with that all of his life.
That’s my point, that’s my question: Is it because of where he came from? What role do you feel that played? His parents came from the cloth and I think that had his father been or done anything else besides being a preacher and having such a public, grounded faith in God, MLK may not have stood as strong in his faith and his commitment to nonviolence and non-confrontation as he did, because he was raised in that faith.
Yes. The most important thing in King’s life was being raised in that church. His father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather were all preachers. So he’s steeped in the church, yet he’s afraid of confronting his father. He’s afraid of confronting Roy Wilkins. He’s afraid of confronting Bayard Rustin. Walter Reuther. He wants to get along with everybody. And that’s so unusual for someone who is a leader of a protest movement. And I think it all goes back to his relationship with his father.
I’m going to throw one name out to you: Robert Chambliss. From your perspective as a biographer, what role do you feel he played in King’s life in the context that he could be singled out as the single-person embodiment of everything King was up against, especially in the South?
If we think about it, King recognized people like Chambliss [the Alabama segregationist who blew up the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed the four little girls], Bull Connor—he needed them. As bad as that sounds, King needed them to show America how racist America really was. And part of his genius is that he realizes, almost like jujitsu, that he can show the world what’s going on because he has this ability to focus people’s attention on the evil. Partially because he’s a preacher, partially because he’s brilliant, he can make people listen. See, a lot of us would be just overwhelmed by the evil and by the concept and thought of “We want to destroy our enemy” or “We want to run from them,” but King recognizes the opportunity to use people like Chambliss and Connor to achieve his goal. Which I think is one of the extraordinary things about him. Does that make sense?
It makes total sense. I like the way you phrased it. You feel that Chambliss and Connor, and I’ll even throw in Governor George Wallace, served a great purpose as examples King used to prove his point. This is what I’m trying to tell you all.
Exactly. When King went to the White House after the March on Washington, [President] Kennedy said to him, “Don’t ever forget Bull Connor did more to help you than anybody else.” Which is pretty offensive really, but King also knew that it was true and when he planned these movements he relied on people like Bull Connor to overreact and he knew that would cause attention—at least in the North—to how bad things really were in the South. You don’t want to take this for granted because people were dying, people were getting beat physically, there were real consequences for the actions caused by those very racists like Chambliss and the way they were behaving. Chambliss obviously killed people. And as unfortunate as it sounds, King was able to use that to get others to hear his message.
Good point, even as fucked-up as that is. So as King was able to use those white racist reactions to expose the true truths in this country he, after the Birmingham bombing, still literally asked “Dear God, why?” It’s a very deep question to me. Broaden that question out to everything King had to deal with and everything he was fighting for, do you believe or do you feel he ever, ever found an answer to that question before he died?
No, I don’t think he did. I think that’s a really important moment: King finishes the March on Washington and I think this might be the moment in American history where we most felt like we might be able to do this, we might be able to actually overcome our racist country’s history, we might actually be able to move on. As cliché as it sounds, “the dream” might be reachable. After his “I Have A Dream” speech, people begin to really reflect in a genuine way. The law is moving, changing and people are also starting to change, and then… boom. The church is bombed and King is shaken by this the same way the rest of the country is shaken, like, “Oh, shit, we guess this is not going to happen.” It was a wake-up call, exactly what the bombers wanted. The bombers were saying, “Yeah, you got a dream? We got your dream right here. Fuck you.” And I think it shook King to his core. I think to him it made no sense. He genuinely believed what the Bible taught us was true, that God didn’t see race or color, God didn’t favor one group of people over the other. And King’s thought was, if he believed that, why couldn’t others believe that? Why couldn’t the world come around and understand that? Why can’t we get past this hatred? I don’t think he ever came to understand that. I think he died very frustrated and angry that the world wasn’t able to see what the Bible and he’d been saying all of this time.
Power. That’s why they couldn’t see it. White America’s blinded by power. Race just happens to be a construct of that, but it’s all about the white male attaining and sustaining his power. At all and anyone’s cost. Same power structure of life we’re still dealing with today.
So what you are saying is that the same forces that were at work in Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, are at work today. Where they’re saying, “We don’t want to give up power.” In their case, “We don’t want to let these people vote because we don’t want to give up control.” I agree. It’s the exact same thing happening today: If we give up power—if we give up anything, we lose power. If we acknowledge that we are treating people differently, then we lose power. So we’re just going to pretend that this is about them. The problem is that they’re the problem.
Makes sense, right? That’s what it’s always been about.
And that’s what I think is King’s reaction to the bombing: [He’s saying] these people are really pissed-off because it looks to them that they might lose power. So we’re going to blow up your church and kill your little girls to remind you: Don’t fuck with us! Don’t think that you’re going to take away this power we have. They were hoarding power for all of American history and [in their minds] why would they want to lose it? Why would they want to let that go? If you’re white and you have that power, it’s almost rational to want to retain that power because it’s been working very well for them. So why would they want to change? Because it’s in the Bible? C’mon.
MLK and Malcolm X: The Divide. I have this fundamental belief that the foundational difference between them was just as much place as it was principle. Malcolm is from the North and outside of the time he spent in Nebraska when he was born he never lived that Southern, that South, experience as a Black person. King was from and lived in and really never left the South. And being in the South is different for us. Am I right in thinking that that probably played as much of a role in the differences in Martin and Malcolm’s philosophies and how they viewed life? Or am I wrong?
No, you’re right. They [North and South] couldn’t be more different. King never left the South until he was like seventeen years old. And by then, Malcolm was… Malcolm couldn’t imagine what life in the segregated South is. The North and South at that time were like two different countries, they really are. And King and Malcolm at that time, the only thing they really have in common is the color of their skin. They are so different in their upbringing, life experiences. And then you add the religion factor, where King is raised in the Baptist church and Malcolm is basically raised and educated in prison, where he was introduced and exposed to the Nation of Islam. Which becomes another big difference between them. I feel it’s amazing that they found any common ground at all, really. But I think it was impressive that despite those differences, they both did try to find common ground. I’ve always felt that the fact Malcolm shows up in Selma is a sign of respect he held for King. He’s down there speaking at Tuskegee and someone says, “Hey, do you want to go to Selma and see what Dr. King is doing up there?” And Malcolm says, “Yes, let’s go.” I don’t think he would have done that if he didn’t have respect for King even though he had at times used King as a foil.
And he doesn’t do this to be an agitator.
No, he does this out of respect. King is in jail by the time Malcolm gets there so he doesn’t get to see him, but he sits at the church with Coretta and he talks to her and says to her, “Maybe I can be helpful. The fact that I’m actually more hated [than him] is good for your husband.”
Do you have an understanding of how prevalent the split in their beliefs and principles still plays a role and haunts Black people in America today?
Yes, but I also think in part it’s the media’s doing, in that they’ve tried to establish them as polar opposites and enemies. Peniel Joseph with his book “The Sword and The Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” in showing how much they actually had in common, certainly by the end of King’s life when he was able to see more value in what Malcolm had to say. So I think we’ve done a disservice by trying to cast them as rivals. I don’t think they were rivals, I think they simply had different philosophies.
But if the media plays a role in that, don’t you see what we as Black people have to deal with, having so few heroes in our lives in this country, that between these two—two of our most beloved heroes—they are almost making us, as a race, choose. Still to this day: Choose philosophically about the two leaders who basically uplifted our entire race in this country.
Great point. I hadn’t looked at it that way. And here I am a white guy writing about Dr. King, so I have to ask myself: What role do I play in how the Black community sees one of its heroes and what responsibility do all of us have in telling these stories? So if King and Malcolm both have to live not only within their own worlds and relate to one another, but also deal with how the white world is treating their so-called “rivalry,” then they can’t win. They can’t make peace because no matter what they do they’re going to be portrayed as rivals. And Alex Haley [co-author of the “Autobiography of Malcolm X”] is partly to blame as well for playing into that. He bought into it. He propagated the myth of the rivalry when there really wasn’t one. But understand, and I say this in the book, that J. Edgar Hoover, one of the most disgusting men in American history, was right in his fear that if Black people got united and rallied behind Martin Luther King that they could actually change the foundation of American democracy. Hoover was deeply afraid of that.
And having Malcolm as an ally instead of rival would have probably allowed that fear to become reality. Okay, “tired, troubled and full of doubt” are the words you used to describe King, according to his friends, at one point. Not the typical characteristics of a leader, but does the fact that his own people used this to describe him—and that Coretta was concerned about his “psychological state”—make King more human than anything to you?
Absolutely. Even early on when he first becomes the leader of the movement, he’s writing to his friends and his teachers, “I’m exhausted.” He doesn’t know how much longer he can handle it. Maybe another year or two. It’s wearing him out. And the pressure on him is ridiculous. He had no breaks in this. He’s never able to turn “the leader of a movement” switch off. And as a Baptist preacher, he can’t even treat himself to anything. He didn’t quite take a vow of poverty but he pretty much did, he took no salary. I believe he went into this probably thinking, “Okay, maybe for a few years I’ll do this, then go back to preaching and teaching,” but he got sucked in and once he was in, there was no way out. The cause was too great. And that’s why it is so powerful to see him struggling emotionally. Anybody would have been struggling emotionally. You get into a protest that suddenly becomes a movement and suddenly it takes over your life—and you are literally being shot at, stabbed in the chest, your home is being bombed and you have no place to go, there’s no way out. And then the government starts coming after you. There’s no refuge. You look at King’s last few years and he’s talking all of the time about how he’s going to die, he wasn’t paranoid, he was realistic.
On page 357 you write that he was “riddled with doubt of his worthiness.” Explain that to me, because there’s a difference in saying you are having doubts than having doubts about one’s “worthiness.”
I think this goes back to what we were talking about earlier about being “human.” Unless you have a massive ego, how can you feel like I am meant to be the leader of Black people? God called on him to “serve,” God didn’t call on him and say, “You are my son.” And King felt like God had spoken to him and said, “You must serve.” He didn’t say to King, “You’re special.” King never felt he was anything special, it was never about him. He was really humble and he remained humble, he felt like he had a duty to do this. And then he knew he was flawed. He knew he wasn’t perfect and he was eaten up with guilt over it, with cheating on Coretta, with the fact that he smoked and drank, so how could he feel that he was special?
But do you feel that he ever felt that he was a hypocrite?
No, he knew like everyone else he had flaws. He knew that we were made in God’s image, but that doesn’t mean that we are made like God. Doesn’t mean we are God. But he knew people expected him to be flawless and that pressure was overwhelming. When you know people expect you to be perfect and you are not—and you’re walking around all of the time knowing that all of your flaws can be exposed by the FBI…
… And at any moment you can die—
I think he was more worried about his flaws being exposed. I think he was prepared for his death. I think the idea of him waking up and seeing in the newspaper the next day that he’d been cheating on his wife consumed him. And J. Edgar Hoover knew this. He knew if he could just get Coretta to just file for divorce it would be over. King would be done. He has no credibility anymore. He can’t lead another march, he can’t give another sermon, it’s over. And that was Hoover’s plan. If the newspapers won’t run the story [that he was feeding them], then I’ll get Coretta to divorce him.
Do you feel that in dealing with MLK’s infidelities Coretta understood his greater purpose?
Yes. And I also think she understood her greater purpose. That she needed to be there to support him and that he couldn’t do this without her. Not as the woman behind the man but a woman who was literally a part of this. I think she knew they were trying to use his personal life to destroy him and that she was the lynchpin to hold it all together. I found a recording she made right after MLK’s assassination where she was working on her autobiography. It didn’t make it into the book, but she said into the tape recorder that she knew MLK was running around with an old girlfriend before they got married. So she knew he wasn’t faithful before they even got married. So she would not have been shocked. I suspect she knew all along that he wasn’t a faithful husband, so when the FBI comes with their findings, she’s not going to be shocked, instead she’s going to say, “I’ve stuck with him all of this time, you think I’m going to abandon him now? You think J. Edgar Hoover is going to get me to abandon him? No way.” I think it actually made her stick with him even more, maybe. Although she never acknowledged how she felt about the other women in her husband’s life, I do think she found her own way of dealing with it. Which makes her a much stronger person than we’ve given her credit for.
The three most important paragraphs, or parts of paragraphs in the book, I want to read them back to you and have you either respond or elaborate on each. One: “He discovered or sensed that his purpose was not to instruct or educate; his purpose was to prophesize. With a booming voice and strident words, he marked a path for himself and for a movement. He reminded the people that their advantage was in their moral superiority. They would not burn crosses or pull white people from their homes. They would protest peacefully, as their Christian faith instructed. They meant to reform American democracy, not overthrow it.”
I think it’s really rare when a person understands their purpose in life. King was raised in the church, he was raised as a Black man in the South, raised by a father who survived sharecropping, and he comes to this moment where he’s asked to lead a protest movement. Then he realizes this is what he’s been made for. The religion that is deep, deep in his DNA; the subjugation that’s been deep, deep in his upbringing; there’s a chance for him to take what he believes and turn it into something, into a fight, a chance to lead the fight. And all he’s asking is really not that radical. He is asking to join the American society, he’s asking for democratic society to live up to its promise. He is not saying “I’m going to overthrow American government.” He’s saying, “We want to join you. We believe America is great and we want you to let us in.” And that paragraph is about all of his forces in his life coming together at one time. Something that doesn’t happen to most of us.
Two: “But justice was not running down like water through Montgomery, because where residents and city officials kept constructing new dams. Black Americans had laws that understood the power of segregation, but they were only now beginning to fully comprehend its intransigence, the way it wove through hearts, minds, laws, and economic systems, and how difficult it would be to remove, as historian J. Mills Thornton, III wrote. Many white people in the South feared dealing with people of color as equals and found it easier to treat them as deadly enemies. They resented the call for equal rights, and nothing, it seemed, would erase their anger. Ulrich B. Phillips, the Georgia-born historian, described Southerners as “a people with a common resolve indomitably maintained—that [the South] shall be and remain a white man’s country.”
You said it before: it’s about power. So if it was just about fairness then white people who have the advantage of being white might actually listen to their pastors on Sundays and say, “You know, he’s right. The Bible says we’re all created in God’s image, I’m good with that.” But there’s power involved and they aren’t willing to give up that power. It all goes back to that and that is what that paragraph is saying. It’s ingrained so deeply into [Southern] society that it’s like a cancer running through all of the cells in your body and at this point you can’t just cut it out. So to them, they have to give up everything and they’re not going to do it. They’re saying, “That’s unrealistic, what you all are asking us to do. We can’t do that. This life is who we are, this is what we know, this is the way the world works. We’re not about to give up everything.” And white society still hasn’t given up that power. Or even shared it. It’s the same thing we’re dealing with with police reform after George Floyd. It’s them saying, “Wait, you’re asking us to just redo everything? You’re asking us to give up the power structure that we know that’s been keeping order for all of this time? We can’t do that.”
We’re disrupting the order.
I’ve never attached the word “order” to what this is. And that is exactly what it is and how they see it!
They would call it the “natural order.” They would say that “naturally” this is the order of how it’s supposed to be. Some people are meant to have more power than others. That’s their argument, what they honestly believe.
Three, and this is a small section of a paragraph: “King’s strategy was to get on national TV, appeal to the conscience of white America, and hope that those white Americans would pressure the government to end discrimination. But that strategy left many Black Americans feeling unempowered and dubious of the government’s commitment to change.” And twice after that in the same paragraph you wrote, King “wanted to believe” ending with, “But to some, that made him appear naive.”
This is one of King’s great strengths and one of his weaknesses. He doesn’t understand politics in that he thinks politicians are going to behave by the same moral code that he’s going to. That they are going to do what’s right and not what’s pragmatic, necessarily. He’s not willing, to his credit, to stoop to their level. There are all of these great recordings of King on the phone with LBJ and LBJ all of the time is asking King to do something for him. And King never asks LBJ for anything in return. Never asked for a favor, never asked him to get J. Edgar Hoover off of his back. Because King’s not playing politics, he’s not Machiavellian in that way. He’s a believer in Jesus and he thinks that he’s supposed to do the right thing and that others will follow and in the end it will work out. Some may say that’s naive. I hope that’s not naive, but certainly if you are a political person then that is naive. But King was a very political figure. He was shaping legislation. The reason he was even in Selma was because he wanted to shape legislation. So he’s dealing in the political world. And yet, he also, philosophically, thinks he’s above it.
That’s what Stokely [Carmichael] wasn’t able to do, that’s what Malcolm wasn’t able to do, move legislation. They could move minds and uplift spirits and esteem, which is just as important, but moving the political needle was something they weren’t in a position to do. King was.
That’s why I say, when people compare Stokely and Malcolm to King, I say, there’s no comparison. They were inspiring figures, but they didn’t get the same things done that were affecting people’s lives. King was changing the country, changing the fabric of our country, changing the nation. Does that make him weak because he’s dealing in the practical? I don’t think so. But it made him seem weak in the eyes of some.
But I differ in thought because I’m of the belief that that’s part of the media narrative that’s pulling us apart. From the Black perspective in this country, we need both philosophies and approaches. We can’t split hairs. King is/was not weak, Malcolm, Stokely, Ali and the radical movement as they called it were/are just as important. In order to fight against what we were up against—especially being only twelve-to-thirteen percent of the population—we needed, still need, both. What I always feel gets lost in the Black radicalization, as far as the fight is concerned, is there is no evidence of us physically fighting back. It’s just a mindset. A reactionary thought just to give us some leverage for what white America and those people in power have been doing to us.
And it’s the white media that’s pitting them as rivals, as opposed to saying they’re part of the same symphony. Because in a different world you would say that there are all of these great different pieces for the fight for equality, right? Over here you have this, over here you have that. Why do you have to say one cancels out the other? Or that one opposes the other? King didn’t say that. He said, “I don’t agree with everything some of the other Black leaders are saying, but I appreciate a lot of what they are doing.” But that’s not how it was portrayed. Some of it is in general but some of it is intentional, too. J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI specifically were saying, “We must divide and conquer.” Saying, “We must nip in the bud anyone who has a chance at emerging as a legitimate force that’s going to lead these people.” So it’s not just broader white society, there’s a part of this that’s intentional.
Let’s circle back to King’s infidelity. With all of the research you’ve done, what does the proof of how deep his infidelity was tell you about his true character?
For one thing it told me that he was torn up. That he had this weakness. That he knew it at an early age. I talked to his friend [Dr.] June Dobbs Butts, who grew up with him, who said even as a teenager King was obsessed with not being like his dad, and not fooling around. And that King couldn’t help himself. She told me he was never faithful a day in his life and it tore King up, tormented him.
Jonathan, I’m not trying to cut you off, but why do you feel he wasn’t able to do anything about it? I mean, neither of us are him but we both know at the end of every day, we as men, we have choices. So to say that he had issues with women and being faithful at an early age, that’s fine. But when you decide to get married, you make a choice. He made a choice to change. And this coming from a man who’s asking an entire country, an entire race to change.
Add to that every Sunday he’s preaching to his congregation that adultery is wrong. So he knows it’s wrong but he doesn’t change. He never used it as an excuse, he never said, “This is just how I am.” I honestly believe he felt bad about it but why he couldn’t stop, I don’t know. Was it something in his upbringing, was it something that he needed that he wasn’t getting from his family, from his friends? Ralph Abernathy said in his book that it was the stress, the stress of King’s life and his work. I don’t know if that’s an excuse.
Did finding out the depth of this shift any of the beliefs you felt about King as a leader, as a person? And was there ever a point where you were concerned about any sense of betrayal to his stature once you included it in the book?
First, as a person, it did. To find out the depths of it, the extent of it, it was more than I expected. It’s hard to see your hero’s flaws. But it didn’t change how I felt about him as a hero. And I wrestle with that. I wrestled with that doing Ali’s book. It’s complicated. I can only imagine what it was like for his family. And yes, I was worried about how what I wrote would be perceived. I’m still hoping that it’s not the focus of people’s attention, but I think it’s important to be honest, and it’s important to remember that our heroes don’t have to be perfect and if we see their flaws we can appreciate what they went through more. And in King’s case I think it’s important to recognize how the FBI weaponized his failures.
In doing this book, what did you ultimately learn about the FBI’s obsession with King?
That it started genuinely with their concern that he’s being surrounded by Communists, people with Communist pasts. And then it evolves into an obsession with his sex life because there is really no evidence that the Communists are important influences; he’s not being used to spread Communist propaganda. J. Edgar Hoover, in part because of racism because he can’t stand to see this Black man winning the Nobel Peace Prize, when he finds out that King is morally imperfect in his view—and of course, people have long had an obsession with the sex lives of Black men in particular— it becomes even more fodder for Hoover’s racism so he begins focusing on that instead of the Communism. And I think he becomes genuinely and personally obsessed with it and shares that obsession with LBJ and LBJ does nothing to discourage him from doing all of these wiretaps, from sending all of these memos about King’s indiscretions. Who cares? What does that have to do with national policy? Why would the President of the United States care that this guy is having sex with someone other than his wife? It’s because they are obsessed with King and with the fact that Americans respect and honor King more than them. And that bothers Hoover and LBJ. See, Hoover knew about [President John F.] Kennedy’s affairs and didn’t obsess over them. He held that information in case he ever needed it and that’s the end of it. He could have done the same thing with MLK but he didn’t. The obsessiveness was not there with Kennedy, it was not there with Johnson, it was not there with dozens of congressional and elected officials who were also having affairs. The obsession was not there with any of those people, so why was the obsession there with King? What is it with King that bothers him more than anybody else?
King’s Black. And he was a threat to the power structure. And he’s a religious leader. Hoover’s actually a very religious man who sees this as a hypocrisy that not only bothers him, but it’s one that he feels he needs to take action on. You have to understand, Hoover is the ultimate power player. He’s going to hold the information he has against others in case he needs it. But what is King going to do for Hoover? Nothing. Hoover does not need to hold this because he expects something in return from King. There’s no power balance. But the others, Johnson, Kennedy, Senator So-and-So, they are in a position to do something for him. So it’s about power. It goes back to what we said in the very beginning. Look, and I’m just speculating here, but if King were in position to say to Hoover, “I can help you take down Stokely Carmichael, I can help you take down Malcolm X,” maybe then there’s a relationship and maybe then Hoover calls off the dogs on King. But King doesn’t do politics. He doesn’t backstab, he doesn’t manipulate. He’s a religious leader who is trying to live a moral life. So ultimately he’s of no use to J. Edgar Hoover.
And if my book accomplishes anything I hope it humanizes King and I hope it makes people realize just how dangerous J. Edgar Hoover’s conduct really was and how much that not just Hoover but the FBI, the media and others were complicit in the campaign to destroy King and just how much damage that did to America. We had a chance to be a better country and the campaign to destroy him severely damaged it, and to me that’s the biggest story there is.
There’s always been this focus on King and his outside “advisors,” if we can call them that. But he still had to deal with philosophical and tactical differences from those he had to work with. You do a great job of crafting the battle between King and Roy Wilkins, and King’s SCLC and the NAACP and how deep that battle actually was.
Once again, it’s about power and King doesn’t really know how to play politics. King thinks he’s doing his thing and is wondering why Roy Wilkins [head of the NAACP] is upset? And Wilkins is saying, “King’s a threat to the NAACP.” He’s actually thinking like a business leader, like a politician. He’s thinking this organization King is doing could take away funding from us. If the SCLC ever decides to become a membership organization and spread throughout the South, then they’re going to be in competition for fundraising. King, on the other hand, is still sort of just thinking strictly in moral, some would say naive, terms. The NAACP is concerned about that. Which is unfortunate. Nope, they still worked together a lot. The NAACP was highly helpful to King in many instances so the relationship shouldn’t be described as one of rivals. But there was a lot more tension between them than I expected to find. Keep in mind, again, I am writing a biography of King, so I’m always trying to see things from his perspective, so to me, here’s another source of stress in his life. Like nothing is easy for this guy. He’s trying to be as universal as he can, trying to work with as many people as he can; he can work with LBJ, he can work with Malcolm X, he can work with Stokely Carmichael, so he can definitely work with the NAACP. To him they’re on the same page. I mean, the bus boycott in Montgomery would not have been resolved the way that it was if it weren’t for the NAACP. But it’s more complicated than that and King doesn’t like that conflict. He doesn’t like conflict, period. Remember, he’s a middle child. He feels like he can be that guy who can slide in everywhere with everybody to make it work. He wants to satisfy everybody.
King once wrote, “It is reasonable to believe that if the problems of Chicago, the nation’s second largest city, can be solved, they can be solved everywhere.” Then he came here and once he got here, after being hit in the head with a brick during a demonstration, he said: “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago.” Did Chicago break him?
No. Chicago, I think, really disappointed him. But it didn’t break him. Or else he wouldn’t have been planning the Poor People’s campaign. The Poor People’s campaign was in some ways a direct response [to Chicago]. King was like, “All right, fine, [Mayor] Daley is not going to do what I want [then] I’ll just try to make the whole country do what I want. Why not just let the whole country try and see what I’ve been saying about poverty and inequality?”
I’ve always felt that Chicago was the place that, in some sense, took away his hope. This was the place where he felt there wasn’t any hope because this was a whole ‘nother level of racism that he hadn’t experienced before.
I agree, that’s true, but here’s the thing that still inspires me about King: A lot of us would have been broken by Chicago. We would have said, “Oh well, that’s it.” Or as Bayard Rustin said to him, “Just go back to Alabama. It’ll work there, you know what to do, you can work on voter registration, that will have a ripple effect for decades. Let’s just do that.” But King didn’t! He could have easily taken that route and done just that, but instead he didn’t and said, “I’m going to just keep going here. I’m going to still focus on the North. I’m still going to focus on the stuff that’s harder to focus on.”
You wrote about how King finally got rid of his tic. Now this seems subtle and understated but it’s one of the most significant tells about King and his life. And the way he got rid of his tic was by him making peace with his death. That’s some deep, deep shit. I’m not sure people will ever understand the depth of it and what it ultimately says about how strong King actually was.
Harry Belafonte told me that. And I don’t think you can overestimate the strength of that. I don’t know if you’ve ever had something that you knew you were doing wrong and you knew it was deep-seated inside of you, something you were living with that you had to make peace with. Like, take people who’ve had to make peace with a fatal illness, King had to make peace with the fact that people wanted him dead. That he probably wasn’t going to live. He usually said, “I don’t think I’m going to live past forty.” He died at thirty-nine. So the fact that he felt that, knew that, but still went on with his work, that he was self-aware of his death, enough so that he said to Belafonte, “That tic went away when I made peace with the fact that I’m going to die,” that’s, like you said, deep. And I’m always leery when I hear people say about King, “Oh, he was suicidal toward the end of his life.” Sure you’re going to say that, because we know now that he was killed at the age of thirty-nine, so it’s easy to rewrite history and say he knew he was going to die. But on the other hand, again, when you’ve been stabbed in the chest, when your house has been bombed twice, when shotguns have been fired through your front door, it’s not irrational to think that you are going to die before the age of forty. And for someone to consciously work on coming to peace with that is incredible to me. That’s the kind of strength I can’t imagine. I’ve known some people who have been extraordinarily brave in their ability to be able to deal with bad, life-altering news, but when it’s a violent death that you are anticipating? When it’s a bullet in the head that you are anticipating? That can come at any time? I can’t imagine that level of bravery. And to still go out there, over and over, knowing what awaits you.
There’s this unbelievable scene that was captured by some people who were making a documentary, where King is getting on a plane, it’s a little five- or six-seater plane and they are flying somewhere down South. King’s talking about the times he’s been the most scared in his life, and he’s kind of chuckling about it, talking about this time in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the people who killed [James] Chaney, [Andrew] Goodman and [Michael] Schwerner—the “Mississippi Burning” murders—were in the audience and he could hear them standing behind him saying, “Yeah, you’re next.” And King is laughing about this, telling this story while he’s on the plane. Saying, “Yeah, that’s the most scared I’ve ever been. I thought that was it for me. I was ready to make my peace with God right then.” And he’s talking about it with cameras rolling and I watched that and realized that that was what this man lived with every day.
There’s an old saying, “It’s not just about what you stand for, it’s also about who you sit with.” As a biographer, writer, journalist, storyteller you’ve had the privilege of technically “sitting with” three major figures in global history who’ve stood for something greater than themselves. And all three paid a price. My final question to you is of the three biographies you’ve written—on Ali, on Jackie Robinson and now this one on Dr. King—who do you believe had the most complicated life?
That’s tough. Really tough. All three of them endured impossible stress that I can’t imagine. And going back to the timeline of history, in 1947, King is still a teenager and Jackie Robinson comes along when nothing’s integrated and he’s integrating baseball, and the pressure of that we can’t really compare to King because it’s twenty years earlier. I said in the Jackie Robinson book that those guys, the first Black baseball players], showed that integration can work. They didn’t have to get laws passed, they just showed that if you gave Black people a chance, you all could do it and you can not have a Civil Rights Movement without establishing that first. Now—despite what I just said—I’m going to eliminate Jackie. He had in many ways a simpler life: wonderful mother who loved him, he had a simple and beautiful marriage, he had the owner of the team he played for backing him in all ways. Now he went through hell doing what he did, but I don’t think it’s at the same level and complication—because you did say “complicated,” correct?—as King or Ali. I think King had to go through the most. The most hell. The most shit. The hardest climb. It doesn’t necessarily make his life the most complicated, but again, he’s the one who had people stabbing him in the chest and blowing up his baby’s crib and his home and the FBI sending tapes to his wife. I just don’t feel you can compare that level of complication. So let’s do this: If you are asking which life would I be most comfortable with? Which life would I sleep the best at night having of the three people I’ve spent years researching and studying and writing about? I’m taking Jackie No. 1, Ali No. 2 and King No. 3. King’s life is the last one I think I could survive.
“King: A Life” by Jonathan Eig will be published May 16, 2023 (Macmillan, 688 pages).