The Making of a New M.L.K. Biography—a Q & A With Author Jonathan Eig

From a New York Times author interview headlined “The Making of a New M.L.K. Biography”:

Having written about Muhammad Ali, Al Capone, Jackie Robinson and other touchstones of the American imagination, Jonathan Eig says he recognizes a common trait in the disparate personalities he’s explored.

“Most of them, if not all of them, have a serious streak of rebellion running through their lives,” Eig said.

His latest biography sets out to show just how squarely Martin Luther King, Jr., belongs in that category, as a bold and often radical thinker whose forceful views on the Vietnam War, poverty and race relations were softened by time and political expedience.

Eig builds on the ongoing reappraisal of King’s legacy with new archival material and extensive interviews with people who lived, worked and fought at his side. Many of these interviews were conducted with some urgency: The window to speak to people who knew King personally is closing, Eig said. Harry Belafonte died last month.

“My approach was, if I do nothing but travel the country for the next year or two, interviewing people who knew M.L.K., my time will have been well spent,” he said.

Eig’s new book paints King not as a myth but as a man: anguished and flawed, but also driven by deep religious belief to push his country toward a more righteous future.

The Times spoke to Eig about his research and his motivations for writing the book.

What were you trying to do with this biography that perhaps previous studies of King’s life weren’t trying, or weren’t able, to do?

I had this epiphany when I was interviewing folks for my Ali book — that they knew Dr. King. I started asking, “What was he like?” So it really just came out of curiosity. Then, as I thought about it, I realized that the world had changed since the last batch of biographies, and that not only had conditions in this country changed, but our understanding of King had changed.

We’d turned him into a monument and a national holiday and lost sight of his humanity. So I really wanted to write a more intimate book.

And why now? I know that part of the answer is what’s come to light with the release of the F.B.I.’s files on King.

The F.B.I. files were one important reason to do this now, because not only do we know more about King’s personal life, but we know just how vicious the government’s attempt to destroy him really was.

I also feel like it was an important moment to give King some of his teeth and claws back. Because everything he said, everything he warned us about, has come true. He warned us that we were slipping into this more segregated society, especially in the North. He warned us about income inequality, he warned us about police brutality and incarceration, and we couldn’t handle it. We’re still not handling it very well.

Your interview subjects’ memories of King must also be affected by the mythology that surrounds him. How do you sift through that?

There are several people who swear they were on the podium at the March on Washington and they heard Mahalia Jackson say, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin,” and then King pivoted and decided to go into the dream motif, and I don’t think that happened at all.

I think that King went into the dream part of the speech and then Mahalia Jackson said, “Tell ’em about the dream.” She was echoing him. So you have to watch out for people whose memories change over time. That’s human nature, we all do that.

It’s a great blessing to have living witnesses to speak to, and that I found dozens of people who knew King is one of the great joys and honors of my career, my life. But you still have to be a little skeptical.

How cognizant did you need to be of your own perspective, as a white man, in approaching a figure like King?

Any biographer has to approach with humility because biography is an impossible task. You can never really know what goes on in another person’s life, in another person’s mind. If I were writing my wife’s biography or my father’s biography I would not really feel qualified.

The hurdle is higher if you’re writing about someone who is different from you. But in my case, I feel like that just made me work harder. It also made me seek out a supportive community, asking King’s friends, asking the scholars in the field, if they would help me and sharing my research materials with them as I went along, sharing my writing with them as I went along. So the fact that people like Lewis Baldwin and David Garrow and Lerone Martin were willing to read as I went along and give me feedback and help me shape it, that really helped me overcome my normal insecurities, which may have been heightened because King is a sacred figure.

It’s hard to read this book and not see King’s message reflected in current conversations about race and inequality.

Every biography exists on multiple timelines. I’m writing about a time and I’m writing in a time. And then I’m thinking about the reader who’s going to be reading it 25, 50 years from now and you want to write something that’s not too much in the present. I don’t want to be too heavy-handed. But I’m also aware that readers bring a lot of what they’re living with to the story and they will see King through a modern lens.

We’re living in a really divided country and King’s message could really matter if we listen to it, if we hear the actual words. But we don’t really teach King’s words anymore. We teach these little boilerplates, the ones that are etched in stone in Washington at his monument. We don’t encourage people to read his writing, and we don’t really listen to what he was saying, and so I was hoping that the book would remind people of who he really was.

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