Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was more than a peaceful activist.
He was defiant, he had bold ideas, he was a radical. Yet, many histories of his life try to place him neatly into a box.
“King could never please everybody: He was too radical for some people, he wasn’t radical enough for others,” said Eig, a former Wall Street Journal staff writer and the author of the award-winning Ali. “And now we’ve toned him down, we’ve candy-coated his message, we’ve turned it into a Hallmark card, and we’ve lost sight of it.”
King’s message of non-violent protest is often evoked while his pushes for progressive change — such as his ideas around reparations, guaranteed income and an end to redlining — are not. And by oversimplifying the civil rights icon to his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Eig said Americans are failing to put King’s work in the proper context.
“This is a country built on revolution,” Eig said. “And when we turn King into a holiday and we have Martin Luther King birthday sales at Walmart, but we don’t read his books and we don’t reflect on his messages, then we are dishonoring him.”
To dispel this version of King’s narrative in his new book, Eig spent six years of research, conducting interviews with those who knew King, such as Dick Gregory and Harry Belafonte, and “pulling on every thread” by searching for full transcripts of interviews and original documents.
Because some of King’s confidants are now in their 90s, Eig knew his book might be the last biography on King that contained interviews with such civil rights leaders as Gregory and Belafonte before their deaths.
And, although not intended, the book comes at a time in which there are movements to ban history books and remove the discussion of race from schools, making the subject of King’s work as significant as it was over 50 years ago.
“I didn’t know that I was going to be writing this book throughout the Trump administration, attacks in Charlottesville, and the murder of George Floyd,” Eig said. “But these issues never go away. The things King talked about are still with us. … So King’s life is always going to be relevant and timely.”Also within this period of research, in 2019, the FBI released records detailing its audio surveillance of King. Because of these records, the public has access to transcripts of King’s private phone conversations — conversations Eig said allow us to hear more of King’s voice.
Since their release, many stories have placed a great emphasis on King’s extramarital affairs, but Eig said what he finds most essential about these documents is the detailed dialogue of King in discussion with his advisers and strategists.
“I was much more interested in hearing about King expressing himself and his feelings to his friends and advisers and to hear how frustrated he was, to hear how emotional he was, to see how determined he was to stay true to his beliefs — even as he was losing popularity, even as the FBI was threatening to destroy his marriage,” Eig said. “It shows his real courage in a way and that, to me, that’s much more important than anything it shows about his personal life.”
Eig’s book provides a more fleshed out narrative of King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, as well. An activist in her own right, her contributions to the civil rights movement are often minimized in the retelling of the Kings’ lives.
“She was frustrated, deeply frustrated, by the role she was assigned, that she wasn’t able to get out there in March and lead the way her husband did — and some of that was her husband’s fault; he was sexist in his approach to women’s role in the movement,” Eig said. “But nevertheless, Coretta is a hero and deserves to be taken much more seriously.”
In 1966, the Kings rented an apartment on Chicago’s West Side to push the next phase of the civil rights movement. To King, Chicago represented change in the north. It was here he felt he could make the greatest impact, Eig said, and it was here that gigantic issues such as housing discrimination and segregation were prominent. (Click here to listen to some prominent Chicagoans weigh in on the moment in their own words.)
“I think this really shows King’s great courage and his vision that he could have stayed in the south where he was most effective, but he truly believed that racism and discrimination, segregation in the north were serious problems and that he couldn’t ignore them, that it would be hypocritical to call out just the places that were easiest to attack,” he said.
King’s Chicago campaign ended up not producing results, as then-Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and city housing agencies negotiated an agreement with King and then backed out on their promise.
“We call it a failure, we say that Mayor Daley got the best of him, and that he left with his tail between his legs, but I don’t see it that way,” Eig said. “I think King really came here, made his points, offered concrete solutions, and then, once he was gone, Chicago said, ‘Nevermind, they’re not doing any of that.’ So it’s a sad chapter, but not for King. I think it’s a sad chapter for us because we’re still living with the results of the city’s failure to take him seriously.”
Today, activists are still pushing for solutions to poverty and segregation — many of which are the same ideas King proposed decades ago. This, Eig said, shows that King really was a radical.
“At the time of his assassination … he wanted to force America to really look deeply at structural inequality and systematic racism,” Eig said. “He wanted us to really push and consider sweeping changes to our economic system. And we just weren’t ready for it.”
Arionne Nettles is a lecturer and director of audio journalism programming at Northwestern University’s Medill School. Follow her @arionnenettles.