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MLK Biographer Jonathan Eig on King’s Early Life, Radicalization & How Racism Still Kills

Web ExclusiveMay 30, 2023
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In Part 2 of our interview with journalist Jonathan Eig about his new book, King: A Life, the first major biography of the civil rights leader in more than 35 years, he talks about King’s early life and father; King’s formerly enslaved grandparents; the FBI’s push for him to abandon colleagues who were communists; and his opposition to the Vietnam War and launch of the Poor People’s Campaign just before he was killed. “We need to remember the radical words he spoke, and not just the safe ones,” Eig says.

In Part 1, we looked at how the book draws on unredacted FBI files, as well as the files of the personal aide to President Lyndon Baines Johnson, to show how Johnson and others partnered in the FBI’s surveillance of King and efforts to destroy him, led by director J. Edgar Hoover. Eig also interviewed more than 200 people, including many who knew King closely, like the singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte. The book has also drawn attention for its revelation that King was less critical of Malcolm X than previously thought.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Part 2 of our conversation with the author of the first major biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in decades. Jonathan Eig’s King: A Life was published this month and draws on unredacted FBI files, as well as the files of the personal secretary of President Lyndon Johnson, that show he and others partnered with the FBI’s surveillance of King and efforts to destroy him, led by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

But I want to back up and begin at the beginning of the book, King: A Life, begin with the opening line of the prologue, which reads, “On December 5, 1955, a young Black man became one of America’s founding fathers. He was twenty-six years old and knew the role he was taking carried a potential death penalty. The place was Montgomery, Alabama, former capital of Alabama’s slave trade.”

Jonathan Eig, you could take it from there, the significance of this moment, and why you call Dr. Martin Luther King a founding father?

JONATHAN EIG: Martin Luther King Jr. was the son of a sharecropper. His father, Martin Luther King Sr., Mike King, as he was known most of his childhood and early adult life, was born on a farm in Stockbridge, Georgia, where they were picking cotton for white men who owned the land and kept the King family in indentured servitude. Martin Luther King Sr. leaves Stockbridge, Georgia, walks barefoot toward Atlanta and begins anew and creates the conditions in which he is able to raise a child who becomes one of the great leaders of the 20th century.

Martin Luther King Jr., I believe, should be considered a founding father of America, because he, more than anyone since the original Founding Fathers, pushed us to really fulfill the promise made in those founding documents, pushed us to really come closer to the truth of a society in which all men are considered equal. And, you know, it took a Black man to do that, because for so long our country was built on this system and dedicated to maintaining this system of white supremacy. And King, along with, of course, many, many great civil rights activists, but with King at the tip of the spear, really forces America to confront itself and to look past its history of racism.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you could continue on that line, actually going back further, talking about Dr. King as the descendant of enslaved people, and the fact that it’s not only FBI documents that have come out now and documents that you were able to get declassified and procure, like LBJ’s personal secretary, but an unpublished book by Daddy King, what Dr. King’s father, who — what he was known as?

JONATHAN EIG: Yes, I found an unpublished autobiography that Martin Luther King Sr. wrote, and it had a lot of incredible details about what it was like coming up in Stockbridge, Georgia, about what he went through to escape from poverty, to get to Atlanta and to remake himself, but also about his hopes and dreams for his children. He says in this autobiography that he really didn’t want his son to become a preacher. He didn’t want his children to have the kind of economic uncertainty that he did. He hoped that they would become lawyers and businessmen and really plant themselves in the American capitalist system and have more security for their family.

But the thing that he failed to reckon with is that he had also instilled in them this great burning pride of race and great desire to fight for the dignity of their people, because they’d seen their mother and father do just that. And the best way that Martin Luther King Jr. could find to do that was by preaching. You know, he found that the church gave him the voice that he needed, gave him the pulpit that he needed.

And also, really importantly, I think one reason why the civil rights movement was led so often by religious leaders is because they couldn’t be fired. They weren’t responsible to any white corporations or white bosses who might seek to control them or tamp down their activity by threatening them, threatening their livelihood.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Martin Luther King Jr. working on a tobacco farm in Connecticut, what ultimately led him to decide to become a pastor, having to do with the police?

JONATHAN EIG: When King was beginning at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he was really still thinking that he might become a lawyer, even a doctor. He wasn’t sold on the ministry. But he went up to Simsbury, Connecticut, one summer to work as a tobacco farmer. Try to picture that young Martin Luther King Jr., you know, working in the dirt, harvesting tobacco leaves, sleeping in this big shed every night. But he found that he liked ministering to the other young men who were working on the farm. He liked preaching the Sunday services.

And one day, he and some of his friends — these were all Black students from the South who went up to Simsbury to farm tobacco. One day, they were driving someone’s car in Connecticut. They got pulled over by police. And we still don’t know why they were stopped. Maybe they were just stopped because they were Black men in a car in a white community. But King was so upset that his father was going to find out that he had been stopped by police, that he called home and delivered the news to his parents that he decided he was going to become a minister after all, knowing that that would please his parents and soften the blow about the news of his interaction with police in Connecticut.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about him actually taking on the name Martin Luther King, his father taking on that name, when he did that. And when did Dr. King?

JONATHAN EIG: So, Martin Luther King Jr. was born Mike King, no middle name, just Mike King. And they called him Little Mike, because his father was also Mike King. Sometimes he went by ML. When he got to college, he was still introducing himself as Mike or ML.

But his father gradually began to add that middle initial, then he added the middle name, and then he changed Mike to Martin and became Martin Luther King, in honor of the great German theologian, Martin Luther, and also just as a way of sort of adding a little bit more dignity, sending the message that reform was a key part of their religious principles, that it’s one thing to worship God, but to worship God goes hand in hand with fighting to make the world a better, more just place. And I think that was a key part.

And Martin Luther King did not choose to be called Martin Luther King; his father bestowed it on him and said, “I’m changing my name, and that means you’re changing yours, too.” So, he went along with it. And he commented many times in later years that he felt like it brought an added sense of responsibility and that they had to sort of earn the honor of being associated with Martin Luther.

AMY GOODMAN: You open your book with this incident that happens, this dramatic scene with Dr. Martin Luther King’s father, at the time Michael King, after his mother, Delia, a sharecropper, asked him to deliver a pail of milk to a neighbor. Tell us that story.

JONATHAN EIG: A reminder that the Kings were raised as Christians. When a neighbor had a sick cow, Delia King sent her son Mike over to the neighbor with a bucket of buttermilk. And along the way, young Mike — he was probably about 11 at this time — stopped to watch at a lumber mill, you know, just this great scene of these giant logs being hauled up from the stream, and it was something a boy would enjoy watching. And while he was watching, the white mill owner shouted at him to go get a bucket of water for the workers. And young Mike said, “I’m sorry. I’ve got to go. I’m delivering this bucket of milk.” And the white mill owner attacked him, beat him, knocked him to the ground, kicked him, spilled over his bucket of milk.

And when Mike got home and told his mother what had happened, Delia marched him back to that mill and confronted this white mill owner, something that was very dangerous for a Black woman to do at the time, and actually shoved him, pushed him and said, “Don’t you ever touch my son again.” And it was an incredibly courageous act. When they got home, Delia told her son, “Do not tell your father, because if he finds out about this and he goes after that mill owner, there won’t be any respite for him. He will not be able to get away with it. I might be able to get away with it. But a Black man could never get away with this.” And it was a hugely important moment in young Mike King’s life, because he saw his mother standing up for herself at great personal risk.

AMY GOODMAN: His grandfather was destroyed by the racism of this country, right? His father, Mike King, left home very early on.

JONATHAN EIG: Yeah, that’s right. Jim King, Martin Luther King’s grandfather, was a sharecropper who became so burned by the experience, so bitter, that he turned to drinking, stopped going to church, became abusive toward his wife and children. And that’s the reason that Martin Luther King Sr. left Stockbridge, Georgia, and walked to Atlanta. He needed to break out of that cycle. He needed to get out of that home and really take a chance on rebuilding and making something new of himself.

And if not for that bold action, that’s why I think Martin Luther King Sr. is one of the great heroic figures in American history, because if he had not had the courage to leave Stockbridge, to leave sharecropping, he would not have had the opportunity to raise Martin Luther King in the environment that he did.

AMY GOODMAN: And then take us from Morehouse to Boston University and Dr. King getting a Ph.D.

JONATHAN EIG: Martin Luther King Jr. is really ambitious. He tries to sneak into kindergarten a year early with his older sister. And then he goes to Morehouse. He’s now, you know, two years younger than most of the students on campus. And then he goes to Crozer Seminary and on to Boston University.

And even though he’s still younger by a couple of years than almost all of his classmates, he is a leader. He is ambitious. We see him burning with this desire to improve himself. His father doesn’t really think he needs to go to seminary, doesn’t think — certainly doesn’t think he needs a doctorate. But King really wants to be more than his father, wants to be more than a country preacher, wants to be an intellectual, maybe wants to be a college professor someday.

And he’s just the man about town. Everybody is fascinated by this bright young man. He has a car, which is very unusual. You know, he’s fairly well-to-do. He’s a ladies’ man. He’s considered the most eligible Black bachelor in Boston in those early years. And he’s leading a philosophical society, you know, weekly discussions at his apartment, where people discuss the great books and great works that they’re reading for college. He’s a fascinating figure, clearly someone on the rise. And I interviewed many people who knew him in Boston at the time, and they said he just had this magnetism about him. Everybody wanted to be near the guy.

And that’s how we met Coretta Scott King, too. He met her in Boston. She was a music student at the New England Conservatory. And on that very first date, he said to her, “I’m going to marry you. You’re everything I’ve been looking for.” And it was because she had more experience as an activist than he did. He was really attracted to that. So, again, that sense of ambition, that sense that “I’m going to kill Jim Crow” — that’s what he used to say, you know, up in Boston. “I’m going to go back down South, and I’m going to kill Jim Crow.”

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s just what he began to do, December 5th, 1955, following up, four days after Rosa Park sits down on that segregated bus and refuses to get up. He had just come to town to minister at the Dexter Avenue Church. I know, Jonathan, you’re going to be speaking there soon. If you can talk about how he became the leader of this movement — I mean, Rosa Parks helped to launch Dr. Martin Luther King — at such a young age, as such a new figure in Montgomery?

JONATHAN EIG: I think that’s a big reason why King was chosen. He was 26 years old. He was new in town. He had not yet made any enemies. And they’re looking for someone to lead this movement, not knowing what it entails, not knowing how long the bus boycott might go on. It could be one day; it could be a week. Of course, it ends up being a year. But they choose King in part because he’s fresh enough that people are curious to hear what he has to say, and he’s not going to divide. You know, if they’d chosen E. D. Nixon, one of the established civil rights leaders of the time, certain people would have said, “No. You know, I’ve got a gripe with him.” They might not have gotten behind him. But because King was young and new, and because he had a reputation for being a great speaker, he was able to unite the community in a way that perhaps no one else would.

And then, once he gets started, of course, we discover that he has this incredible gift, that he’s not just a brilliant speaker, but he has this message that forces everybody to open their minds. Even some of the, you know, white liberals or white moderates in the North, they hear this message where he’s combining the calls from the Bible and the Constitution, where he’s saying, “We don’t want to tear down this racist system. We want to join it and make it better. We want to fulfill the promise of American democracy.” It’s this very patriotic, very, in some ways, conservative message, that, of course, he’s going to use to really fundamentally attempt to reform American democracy, but it seems like something everybody can get behind. And that’s really when he finds his voice, in Montgomery.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that really catapults him. And Jonathan Eig, I’m wondering if you can talk about what were considered some of the great successes and failures, sometimes just by the media but not by Dr. King, and who his allies were, and then if you can talk about how some of those allies were targeted, something deeply painful to Dr. King, people like Stanley Levison, people like Bayard Rustin, they considered — like Bayard Rustin, a Black gay activist — both called communists, who he had to cut ties with.

JONATHAN EIG: When King becomes the center of attention in Montgomery, a lot of activists from around the country see this as an opportunity. They see his clear leadership skills, his great oratory, and they think, “We need to take what’s happening in Montgomery and spread it around the country, and this guy might be our leader.” And they descend on Montgomery, literally arriving, you know, in the early days of the protest, to say to Dr. King, “We can help. We want to work with you to take this nationally.” And the beautiful thing about it — so, Bayard Rustin arrives, and many others.

But the beautiful thing about it is that King doesn’t really have a plan. He’s improvising as he goes along. And he fails several times to try to repeat the magic of Montgomery in other places. It doesn’t go so well in St. Augustine. It doesn’t go so well in Albany, Georgia. But he learns as he goes along. And he learns that he’s really a great lightning rod. When he arrives in a town, when he joins or even just supports the bus boycotts in other towns or the sit-ins at lunch counters or the Freedom Rides, he’s able to help focus the nation’s attention in a way that really nobody else can. So, that becomes one of his great strengths, and, you know, one of the great dangers, because he’s willing to fail. He’s willing to throw himself into situations where he doesn’t know what’s going to happen.

And folks like Bayard Rustin become not only a great asset, but also a danger because of their former communist ties. They bring the scrutiny of the federal government. They bring the FBI down on King. So now he’s not only fighting the white racists in places like Birmingham and Selma, he’s not only fighting the people who are trying to cling to this segregationist system, this white power structure that has allowed them to hold on to power and money for so long, but he’s also up against his own government, because they see this — they see him and the civil rights movement as a threat to the existing order. So, King is really just throwing himself into situations with the belief that he’s doing the right thing, but taking enormous risks all the time.

AMY GOODMAN: You write about how in the early part of 1962, the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover learned that Stanley Levison had written a recent speech for King calling for solidarity between labor and the civil rights movement. You also write about how when Harry Belafonte started that 10-year relationship with Dr. King, speaking to him almost every day. In that first critical conversation, that you devote a whole op-ed to, Dr. King asked him about the unions and their power.

JONATHAN EIG: King was always looking for allies, and he was not focused entirely on the South. You know, we get the impression that King only in the last years of his life began to focus on broader issues like the economy, like income inequality. All along, really, he was looking for allies in the North, and all along he was looking to attack the issues of racism and the income inequality throughout the country. It’s just that we weren’t really paying attention to it. We were so focused on his work in the South and on voting rights and on desegregation that we didn’t hear the message.

And then, by the later years, as he becomes much more open and attacking some of these broader economic and social issues, he’s criticized for it. He comes under attack, people saying, you know, “Stick to what you’re good at. Stick to what you know. Stick to voting rights in the South.” But King recognized early on that there were great alliances to be made with the labor movement, also recognized early on that there were great alliances to be made with people like Harry Belafonte, entertainers, who — you know, white people in the North might be a little reluctant to listen to a preacher, a Southern preacher. They might be a little reluctant to listen to an activist. But when celebrities spoke out, when people like Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr. and Marlon Brando joined the cause… King was just a genius for building these kinds of coalitions.

AMY GOODMAN: And that relationship with Harry Belafonte and how critical the entertainers were, even Tony Bennett, in standing up for and raising money for the civil rights movement, especially when people were being put in jail, raising bail. You have the Birmingham Children’s Crusade and beyond.

JONATHAN EIG: Yeah, this was a great way to remind Americans that this was not some fringy, left-wing, radical, communist plot to try to spread equality. When you’ve got some of America’s most popular and famous entertainers, you know, on the podium, marching along with the protesters from Selma to Montgomery, when you’ve got, as you mentioned, Tony Bennett and Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, you know, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, that sends a message that this is becoming a mainstream movement.

And that’s one of the great beauties of the March on Washington. We’re about to celebrate the 60th anniversary, August 28th, 1963. The crowd is, you know, maybe a third, maybe a little more than a third white. And the TV cameras are actually going out of their way to make it look more white. They want to show that this is an interracial gathering, that America is coming together in harmony in a way it’s never done before. And that sends a really important message. It also deeply offends the sensibilities of people like J. Edgar Hoover, who redouble their efforts to try to portray King as a radical and to destroy his reputation and his standing in American society.

AMY GOODMAN: You say Dr. King is a radical. And he ends — his life ends, he’s assassinated, as he’s organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. The significance of taking on the power structure of this country, whether we’re talking about war or capitalism, Jonathan?

JONATHAN EIG: Yeah. And, you know, Harry Belafonte said to me many times that “We don’t like radicals in America. We don’t teach radicals. Even though this was a country born of radicalism, born of revolution, we, as a government, at least, are dedicated toward preserving the status quo.” And when King was assassinated, I think it was James Farmer who said, “This is what America does to its conscience.” This is what we do when we — when somebody speaks truth to power: We snuff it out.

And that’s one of the great tragedies. King became deeply unpopular in the last years of his life. We celebrate him now. We’ve turned him into a national holiday and a monument. But we forget that he was beleaguered, that he was depressed, that he suffered anxiety, that he felt like the country had turned on him, that they didn’t want to hear his voice anymore. He died feeling like he had been neglected and that the country had turned its back on him. And in large part, that’s because, you know, active efforts were made by government officials to try to undermine his work.

But it’s really important that we remember that King was not always this sainted figure that we make him out to be, and we need to remember the radical voices. We need to remember the radical words that he spoke, and not just the safe ones.

AMY GOODMAN: And in this last minute, the other part of that quote you end the book with, by the activist James Farmer, “Every racist in the country has killed Dr. King,” Jonathan.

JONATHAN EIG: Yeah, it’s a sad thing to think about, but, you know, King went to his grave believing that the country was as racist as ever, that his work had not had the impact that he had hoped for. And we see we are still living with many of the things that — issues that he raised. We’re still living with police brutality. We’re still living with, you know, skewed incarceration rates and segregated schools and segregated housing. So, it’s painful to think about it, but Farmer was right. You know, racists — racism still kills.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Eig, we want to thank you for being with us, longtime journalist, author of the new King biography. It’s called King: A Life.

And that does it for our interview. To see Part 1, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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