We speak in depth 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, which 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.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We spend the rest of the hour 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 aide to President Lyndon Johnson, that shows how he and others partnered with the FBI’s surveillance of King and efforts to destroy him, led by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Eig wrote in a New York Times opinion essay about the book that the documents reveal how, quote, “Johnson was more of an antagonist to King and a conspirator with Hoover than he has been portrayed. By personalizing the F.B.I.’s assault on King, Americans cling to a view of history that isolates a few bad actors who opposed the civil rights movement — including Hoover, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama and the Birmingham lawman Bull Connor. They thus fail to acknowledge the institutionalized, well-organized resistance to change in our society.” That’s Jonathan Eig, author of King: A Life, for which he also interviewed more than 200 people, including many who knew King closely, like the singer, actor and activist, the late, great Harry Belafonte.
The book has also drawn attention for its revelation that King was less critical of Malcolm X than previously thought. Eig found the original transcript of an interview King did with Alex Haley, who’s the author who collaborated with Malcolm X on his autobiography. The transcript shows how Haley misquoted and even made up part of King’s response. In fact, King never said, “Malcolm has done himself or our people a great disservice.” And King’s comment about “fiery, demagogic oratory” was not related to Malcolm X.
To talk about all of this, we’re joined in Chicago by Jonathan Eig.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jonathan. This is an epic work. Congratulations on years of research and writing. Why don’t we begin where I left off, on this exposé around what Martin Luther King really thought of Malcolm X? Talk about the significance of how Alex Haley shaped the narrative for so many decades, and who Haley was.
JONATHAN EIG: Alex Haley was one of the best-known African American journalists of his era. He wrote for a lot of mainstream white publications, like Reader’s Digest and Playboy. And the Playboy interview that he did with Martin Luther King was the longest interview — the longest published interview that King ever gave. So it had significant impact. It reached a lot of white readers who were not otherwise going to be exposed to such a long interview with King.
And because of the comments that King made, or supposedly made, about Malcolm X, it’s been handed down for decades, for generations, that this is what King actually thought about Malcolm X. And it was, as you pointed out in the introduction, largely fabricated.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how you found this out and what you understand King really thought about Malcolm X. They actually only met in person once — right? — in Washington, D.C., although Malcolm X did go to Selma. And talk about what he said to Martin Luther King’s wife, Coretta Scott King.
JONATHAN EIG: Yes, the men only met once, and Malcolm did go — he was speaking in Tuskegee, and some students told him that King was in Selma, they could drive there and be there within hours. So Malcolm X got in the car, drove to Selma, did not get to meet King, because he was in jail, but he did sit next to Coretta Scott King at a church rally and said to Coretta, “Let your husband know that I’m here, that I support him, and that maybe it’s helpful to him, in a way — if everybody knows that I’m the alternative, perhaps they’ll be more willing to listen to Dr. King.”
And that’s the truth. The truth of the relationship, as James Baldwin wrote, is that by the time of their deaths, they were pretty much indistinguishable in their philosophies. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but they were definitely moving toward each other. And this quote in Playboy really did a disservice. It really misrepresented their relationship.
One of the things that I do any time I find a really good interview with a subject of a book that I’m working on is I’ll go to the archives and try to find the original tapes or the original transcript of that interview to see what was left out. And that’s really all I was doing when I went looking for the Alex Haley transcript of his interview with Martin Luther King. I wanted to see what got left out, because, you know, you can never really publish the full interview. You have to choose the best parts.
But as I was reading through the transcript, I was shocked to discover that whole parts of it were moved around so that answers to questions were changed in their meaning, and some sections were completely fabricated. And King never said that he thought Malcolm’s fiery oratory was doing a disservice to the Black community. In fact, he said that about the Nation of Islam, but not specifically about Malcolm.
And when asked about Malcolm, King actually expressed great open-mindedness. He said, “I don’t agree when Malcolm X calls for violence, but I’m also not so arrogant to think that I have all the answers.” And he’s suggesting in this interview, the part that wasn’t published, that he’s open-minded to learning more and to talking more to Malcolm. That’s one of the great things about King. He was always interested in listening to the people who disagreed with him.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about that kind of research that you did, Jonathan, and why you chose to do a profile of King, the — not just a profile, an epic work? Talk about the other biographies that you wrote and how that brought you to King at this critical moment, when, what, Harry Belafonte just died. He was 96. Dr. King, of course, would have been in his nineties, and what that means about those around him who knew him best.
JONATHAN EIG: About 10 years ago, when I was working on my Muhammad Ali biography, I was interviewing people who knew Ali and also knew Martin Luther King, and I was asking them about the couple of occasions when King and Ali met. I was speaking to people like Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, Andrew Young, Reverend Jesse Jackson. And as I began talking to them, I found myself just asking a lot of questions about King. I was curious what he was like.
And that’s when it occurred to me that in the last, you know, 40, 50 years or so, we’ve turned King into kind of a two-dimensional figure. And I think especially with the advent of the national holiday, he’s become kind of a Hallmark card, and we’ve watered down his vision. And these men were telling me that they considered King a radical, as radical as Malcolm X in many ways. And the public image of him has changed so much that I felt like this was a great opportunity to write a book that would correct that image, and also an opportunity to write that book while so many people who knew King were still alive.
And I traveled the country over the last six years interviewing folks not just like the ones I mentioned, but also Juanita Abernathy, Dr. June Dobbs Butts, Reverend James Lawson, Reverend Bernard Lafayette, and asking them, “What was it like to be around King? What was his message? How have we lost sight of the real man?” I wanted to write a more intimate portrait. And it had been, you know, a good 35 years since the last King biography had been published, so I felt like this was an urgent mission, really.
AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan, I want to get to his early years, the descendant of enslaved people, but I also want to talk about what you discovered in the last years from declassified FBI documents, and also this personal secretary of Lyndon Baines Johnson kept her own archive, and how that wasn’t released until recently. I want to talk about FBI surveillance, from the Kennedys to Johnson, and how it wasn’t just surveillance but proactive attempting to drive Dr. Martin Luther King to suicide.
JONATHAN EIG: It began with an authorization by Robert F. Kennedy to begin to surveil King. They began by putting wiretaps on some of his associates’ phones. Eventually, they started wiretapping King’s home and office phones. And then they also began to put listening devices in his hotel rooms.
Originally, the rationale for that was that they were concerned he was consorting, associating with communists and former communists. When it became clear that King was not interested at all in communists, and the communists were not influencing the civil rights movement in any way that moved them toward communist beliefs, they acknowledged that, but by then they had become obsessed with his personal life and trying to catch him in affairs with other women, other than Coretta, his wife.
So, it became, really, a personal vendetta, fueled in part by the racism in the FBI, fueled in part by the insecurities of J. Edgar Hoover, who resisted and really raged when King criticized the FBI for being racist. And then it became really the personal obsession of people like Hoover and LBJ, who I think just had a prurient interest in keeping tabs on King’s personal life.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how they weaponized that. I mean, you talk extensively about Martin Luther King dealing with depression. And I think this also goes to demystifying an icon. It doesn’t take away any of his power, but for people who are — who wonder if they themselves could make a difference in the world, who suffer from depression. From his early sort of halfhearted attempts at suicide as a child to being institutionalized and yet accomplishing so much, take us on that trajectory.
JONATHAN EIG: I think it’s really important for us to acknowledge that our heroes have flaws, and if we expect our heroes to be perfect, nobody will ever rise to the occasion. Nobody will even try.
And King was deeply flawed. As you mentioned, he attempted suicide twice as a teenager, jumping from a second-story window of his home when he was upset about, first, an injury suffered by his grandmother and then, later, by her death. And when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, he was hospitalized at the time for what he called anxiety, but for what Coretta described as depression. He was hospitalized numerous times throughout his life because the pressure had just gotten to him so badly.
And, of course, the FBI knew about this and attempted to weaponize it, as you say. They took his personal life, reported on it, distributed that information not only to the president of the United States, but to members of Congress and to members of the media, hoping that somebody would go public with it and destroy his marriage, destroy his reputation and, essentially, destroy the civil rights movement. At one point, they even planned for a replacement for King, choosing Samuel Pierce to become the next leader of the civil rights movement once they managed to get King out of the way.
So this was a deliberate, extended and really mean-spirited campaign, driven not just by their fear of King, not just by their fear of a race — of a Black man rising to prominence, but really driven by a fear of losing the power as was enjoyed by white people primarily at that time. They wanted to maintain the existing power structure.
AMY GOODMAN: And when you talk about distributing the surveillance transcripts, when they were listening to him in hotel rooms, when they were listening to him on the telephone, talk about the role of the media, in one sense being called heroic — for example, The New York Times for returning those documents without reporting on them — but not exposing the fact that he was being surveilled and wiretapped.
JONATHAN EIG: This is one of the great mysteries of the civil rights era. Why didn’t anybody report on the fact that our government, the FBI, was in fact surveilling private citizens — not just King, but many of his closest associates — and, as we later discovered in 1971, when some of these FBI documents were stolen in a break-in, that the FBI was conducting a massive campaign of trying to disrupt protest leaders, trying to disrupt activists who were engaged in peacefully, for the most part, trying to bring change and expand the system of democracy?
But the real interesting part of the story to me is that dozens of reporters were being leaked these documents, dozens of reporters were being beseeched by the FBI to publish the news of King’s personal life, to write about his sexual affairs, and they patted themselves on the back for not reporting that story, protecting King’s privacy, but none of them picked up what should have been the much bigger story, which was the surveillance in the first place. Why was our government doing this? Why was it engaged in this kind of conduct against a private citizen, in fact, one of our great moral leaders?
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how that went back to the Kennedys, both President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. What was their relationship with King — on the one hand, calling Coretta, being deeply concerned about him being jailed, and, on the other hand, authorizing the wiretaps?
JONATHAN EIG: Martin Luther King did not endorse JFK, but a lot of people felt like his tacit endorsement, his words of approval for Kennedy, helped Kennedy swing the election. And after that, King was really disappointed that Kennedy didn’t move more quickly to enact civil rights legislation. He felt like Kennedy was hemming and hawing, playing politics, trying to conserve — to preserve white votes in the South, not wanting to take any chances. So, the relationship was a complicated one.
At the same time, it was the Kennedys who authorized the FBI to begin these wiretaps. The Kennedys were, at first, truly concerned that King’s connections to communists might have damaging political effects, that if the news got out that King had these former Communist Party members and perhaps some current Communist Party members in his circle, that it would damage any chances they had of passing civil rights legislation. And the Kennedys warned King and asked him to get rid of these people. King ended up getting rid of one of them, but keeping his relationship with the other, because he truly believed that this was a good man and that his former ties to communists were irrelevant. So, King was not playing politics. He was doing what he believed was the right thing morally, standing by a friend and an important ally. And the Kennedys didn’t seem to understand that. They didn’t understand why he wasn’t more concerned with the political optics.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, going on to Johnson, the fact that he understood he had to keep these memos of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover secret, who was sending as many as one a week, detailing Dr. King’s private life — who knows? — filled with facts, filled with lies, and putting this through a whole different channel with the private secretary of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and when those documents came out, Jonathan?
JONATHAN EIG: Just last year, really, within the last year, year and a half. I petitioned the LBJ Library to open up the files of Mildred Stegall, who was LBJ’s personal secretary, because we’ve known for a long time that Johnson kept his most important papers in Mildred Stegall’s safe. He kept his private business papers there. He kept recordings that he made, unbeknownst to others that he was recording all the phone calls from the Oval Office. He kept the tapes in Mildred Stegall’s safe. So I asked them to check to see if there were any FBI files in the safe, in Mildred Stegall’s files.
And, in fact, there were hundreds of pages of documents directly from J. Edgar Hoover to the White House with the most personal details, really shockingly odd in how personal they were, really gossipy things that could not have borne any, really, importance when it comes to national security. But it just appeared that LBJ and Hoover enjoyed gossiping about the personal details of King’s life, and also about any kind of criticism that King might have had for LBJ. It was raised to the level of high national importance, at least in Hoover’s mind, if King said something critical of LBJ. And LBJ, by this time, was becoming consumed with the Vietnam War. It was giving him nightmares, literally causing him nightmares. And when King began to speak out more aggressively against the war, LBJ took this very personally. So, LBJ seemed to join in the vendetta with Hoover in this attack on King.
And I think it’s important to recognize that that has consequences. You know, when LBJ took office, he viewed King as one of his most important allies. They worked together to pass some of the greatest legislation in this country’s history — the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. And I think their partnership was an amazing one, maybe the greatest partnership we’ve ever seen between a president and an activist. But J. Edgar Hoover helped to really spread cancer into that relationship. And you can hear it in their phone calls. You can hear how he goes from calling him “Martin” in those early calls to referring to him as “Dr. King” and “Reverend King” and really losing the warmth of that relationship, and to the point where they are really antagonists. LBJ becomes an antagonist of Dr. King’s.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I’m going to go through a chronology. After FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called Dr. King, quote, “the most notorious liar in the country,” a reporter asked Dr. King for his response.
REPORTER: Dr. King, what is your reaction to the charges made by J. Edgar Hoover?
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Well, I was quite shocked and surprised to learn of this statement from Mr. Hoover questioning my integrity. And very frankly, I don’t understand what motivated the statement.
AMY GOODMAN: Not long after J. Edgar Hoover called Dr. King “the most notorious liar in the country,” on November 18th, 1964, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This is an excerpt from his acceptance speech on December 10th, 1964.
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle, and to a movement which has not yet won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize. After contemplation, I conclude that this award, which I receive on behalf of that movement, is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time, the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dr. King in his Nobel acceptance speech. There’s so much to talk about here, Jonathan Eig. As you said, when he learned he was going to win the Nobel Peace Prize — that announcement comes in October — he was hospitalized for depression. Talk about his response at the time. And then, that quote of J. Edgar Hoover, who knew all of this was going on, was right after the announcement, and knowing that Dr. King had been hospitalized. And the response of Dr. King to hearing Hoover call him this?
JONATHAN EIG: I think J. Edgar Hoover was furious that Dr. King had won the Nobel Prize. He took it personally. You know, here’s this Black man, this man who’s attacking American values, as J. Edgar Hoover sees them. J. Edgar Hoover is deeply committed to his version of white Christian nationalism. And for King to win the Nobel Prize was a personal affront to him, I think. And he redoubled his efforts at that point to try to damage King, to try to destroy his reputation.
At the same time, the Nobel Peace Prize becomes a calling to Dr. King and to Coretta Scott King, both of whom say, “We have a greater responsibility than ever now. And that responsibility includes not limiting our work to the fight in the South, not limiting our work to integration, but to look at racism throughout the country, to look at poverty, to look at militarism, to look at materialism.” And he really begins to expand not just his vision, but his activism, his work. He begins taking on more fights in the North. He begins speaking out more against the Vietnam War. And he broadens his role and becomes, you know, a much greater moral leader.
And this, in turn, further infuriates J. Edgar Hoover. And we see the campaign to destroy King just growing and growing. So, what we have here, sadly, as the Nobel Prize helps to crystallize, we recognize that J. Edgar Hoover is actually one of the few people who understands that Martin Luther King is presenting a massive threat. He’s calling for a new kind of American democracy. He’s calling for a vision of America that gets us past some of our materialistic, militaristic habits and brings in a new dawn of a new day. And that is a huge affront and a threat to J. Edgar Hoover in the way he sees the world.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to that address, Dr. Martin Luther King, April 4th, 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, the speech he gave at Riverside Church explaining why he opposed the War in Vietnam.
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” And they ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home. And I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.
AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Eig, the significance of what he said, going beyond civil rights in the United States, the attack on him not only by those who opposed him, but by his closest allies, saying he was risking the entire civil rights project? And then the corporate media. You had Life magazine calling the speech “demagogic slander sounding like a script for Radio Hanoi,” The Washington Post saying King, quote, “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.” Talk about how King both was deeply affected by this, but doubled down because he said it was his moral obligation.
JONATHAN EIG: To me, this is my favorite King speech, because it summarizes his entire life and everything he’s believed in from childhood. This is a man — remember, he came to fame at age 26, leading the Montgomery bus boycott; he was assassinated at age 39 — a very short career, 12-and-a-half years of activism. But it all began with the lessons he learned before he knew how to read, lessons he learned from the Bible, that said all men are created equal, that said war is wrong, war is a sin against God, and that all men are brothers. And he sums it all up in this speech on April 4th, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York, sums it up so beautifully, really crystallizes everything he’s been saying all his life, and doubles down at a time when he could have backed off, when he could have stepped aside, when he was under attack from the left and the right. He was not conservative enough for the conservatives; he was liberal enough for the liberals. He was getting it from all sides.
He really just keeps marching, keeps going forward, and plans for this Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, where he’s going to basically occupy Washington, D.C., until the government agrees to fundamental economic reforms and fundamental changes in how we feed and care for the poor, fundamental changes in how we view our militarism. And he is battered for this. The New York Times, Life magazine, The Washington Post, they all attack him. And we have transcripts of his phone calls. We can even hear him on the phone with one of his best friends and closest advisers, who says to him, “That speech was a mistake. It’s going to cost us funding in the North. We’re going to lose our liberal supporters. You’re going to have no relationship anymore with LBJ.” And it’s painful to read these transcripts. You can just — your heart goes out to King, because he has to explain to one of his closest friends, “Don’t you understand me? Don’t you know what I’ve been saying all these years? It’s not out of pragmatism. I may have been wrong politically, but I was not wrong morally.”
And that is King. That is what makes him a hero for our day, because he never backed down. He never gave up on his true beliefs. And he continued to insist, even when it would have been a lot easier for him to step back.
AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Eig, I want to thank you for this interview and hope you can stay for us to do a post-show interview, and we’ll post it at democracynow.org, to talk about King’s early years and the allies he was forced to sever ties with for a time, like Bayard Rustin. We’re talking to Jonathan Eig, longtime journalist, author. His new biography is out, King: A Life.
That does it for our show. Go to democracynow.org for all transcripts of show. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.