More than 100 schools in the US are named after Martin Luther King Jr. His statue stands next to the National Mall in Washington DC, between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials. In 1983 Ronald Reagan approved an annual national holiday that marks King’s birthday on 15 January.
King was not only canonised posthumously; he was intermittently cherished in his lifetime. In December 1963 he was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year. A year later he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: aged 35, he was the youngest person to receive the prize, and the second black American (after the UN mediator Ralph Bunche). In a 1964 Gallup poll the American public viewed King as the fourth most-admired man in the world, behind Lyndon Johnson, Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower.
But by 1966 his name had slipped out of the top ten, and 63 per cent of those Gallup surveyed that year viewed him negatively. Most Americans supported the Vietnam War, but King vociferously opposed it. The civil rights movement, which he led with great moral probity, was increasingly seen as an excuse for rioting and mindless violence. Files declassified in 2017 and 2018 showed that King was not a saint but a man who had extramarital affairs; they also showed he was treated with deep suspicion by J Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
Jonathan Eig’s biography of King gives us the person, not the icon. King’s grandfather Jim King never learned to read or write, never owned property and never voted. By the time King’s father was born in 1899, the Jim Crow laws – which mandated the separation of the races in schools, hospitals, theatres, hotels and prisons, on public transport and at water fountains – were already firmly established across the American South. Under Jim Crow, all the services reserved for black people were markedly inferior. Between 1885 and 1930 more than 4,000 black people were lynched.
King grew up in a middle-class household, but as a black boy he was forbidden from swimming in the public pools or playing in the parks of his home city, Atlanta, Georgia. His father, Martin Luther King Sr, was a Baptist minister; so too was his maternal grandfather AD Williams. Both of these men presided over the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. As Eig writes, “Black Baptists outnumbered white Baptists in Georgia. Black culture and black political activism rose from the pews and pulpits of the black church.”
This proved crucial to King’s identity and trajectory: “Black Baptist preachers,” says Eig, “frequently imparted the radical message that all people were free and equal under God’s laws… that the racial hierarchies invented by men to justify slavery were false and craven, that the savagery of the Ku Klux Klan and the segregation laws of the South were abominations in the eyes of God, and that God would never love one group of people more than another based on the colour of their skin.”
At 15, King enrolled at Morehouse College, where Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” provided his first encounter with the theory of non-violent resistance, a philosophy that would underpin his activism. King delivered his first sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1947 when he was 18, and a year later he was formally ordained and became an assistant pastor there. But he had wider horizons.
At Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania he read Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Rousseau and Mill. By this time in his youth, he was already a ladies’ man. On the morning of his graduation in 1951, he phoned a mentor, Reverend J Pius Barbour, to tell him that, as Eig writes, “several women were planning to attend the graduation ceremony, each one expecting to be introduced to King’s parents as his fiancée”.
Having moved to Boston to study for a doctorate, he met a budding concert singer called Coretta Scott in 1952, and they married the following year. At Boston University he indulged in plagiarism – in 1990 research revealed that parts of his dissertation’s introduction had been copied from the book The Theology of Paul Tillich – but he nevertheless became Dr King in June 1955.
King made his name as a nationally significant figure in Montgomery, Alabama, where he moved in 1954 to be the minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In December 1955 an alliance of ministers including King decided to endorse a bus boycott after the seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white person. A few days later King gave a speech at Holt Street Baptist Church, which, according to Eig, signalled a transformative moment in his career. He discovered “that his purpose was not to instruct or educate; his purpose was to prophesise. With a booming voice and strident words, he marked the path for himself and for a movement.”
Eig adds that King “reminded the people that their advantage was in their moral superiority. They would not burn crosses or pull white people from their homes… They meant to reform American democracy, not overthrow it.” He did this by advocating boycotts, marches and sit-ins, and directly persuading politicians. King also put his safety on the line; he was constantly at risk of assassination and was jailed 29 times.
In 1957 King and a group of ministers launched the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was not simply a political activist, but also a kind of moral guru. From 1957 to 1958 he wrote an advice column for Ebony magazine in which he defended interracial marriage and birth control, expressed opposition to both premarital sex and anti-Semitism, and described homosexuality as a “problem” that was “culturally acquired”.
The March on Washington, in which King delivered his totemic “I Have a Dream” speech, was originally scheduled for October 1963. But it was moved forward to August to harness the momentum of protests earlier in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, in which the infamous police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor set dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protesters. The Washington march attracted an estimated 250,000 people: Mahalia Jackson and Bob Dylan sang, and King was the final speaker.
A year later the Civil Rights Act was passed. It “banned segregation in public accommodations and outlawed discrimination based on race, sex, religion or national origin in the workplace”. King expanded his activism from the South to the North where, as Eig writes, segregation “was a function of law, public policy and discriminatory business practices”.
One of King’s fiercest critics in the 1960s was another black American activist and orator: Malcolm X. King was an integrationist who promoted non-violent civil resistance; Malcolm was a separatist who championed change by “any means necessary” and dismissed King’s 1963 rally as “the Farce on Washington”. However, Eig reveals that King’s famous criticism of Malcolm X, made in an interview with Playboy magazine in 1965, is more nuanced than previously thought. Playboy quoted King as saying, “I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice” – but the line does not appear in the interview transcript, in which King concedes, “Maybe [Malcolm X] does have some of the answer.”
King stood against racism, militarism and economic inequality throughout the 1960s. His relationship with Johnson, president from 1963 to 1969, soured over King’s fierce criticism of the Vietnam War. King’s final campaign before his assassination, aged 39, in April 1968, was advocating better conditions for Memphis sanitation workers.
His politics were not always as radical as they seemed. Eig points out that King “condemned capitalism for generating massive economic inequality while arguing that the system could be reformed. He called for higher worker wages and strong unions, but he did not insist on equal pay for all workers.” Quoting the scholar Tommie Shelby, he describes King as a social democrat rather than a Marxist.
Above all, King was an American patriot and Baptist minister. These positions shaped his outlook profoundly. They explain his support for integration and peace, and his opposition to segregation and inequality. The persuasive power of his oratory came in part from his attachment to the US’s founding principles – his unarguable conviction that the nation had failed to live up to the moral standards it professed to believe – and in part from his religiosity. His speeches were not just speeches, they were sermons.
Even as he grew more political, more powerful, and more respected, he drew his authority from the Bible and relished every opportunity to speak from a pulpit. “In the quiet recesses of my heart,” he said, “I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher.” His mission, he said, was not simply to change the laws and values of America but to redeem the nation’s soul.
Martin Luther King loved sleeping with women other than his wife. He was not always honest. He was not keen on women in positions of authority when it came to civil rights activism. He was an imperfect man, but – as this book convincingly shows – he was also a great one. The values he espoused and promoted illustrate he was very much an American hero. But it is through accepting his imperfections that we can better understand him as a human rather than a saint.
“This Is Not America: Why Black Lives in Britain Matter” by Tomiwa Owolade will be published in June by Atlantic
King: The Life of Martin Luther King
Simon & Schuster, 688pp, £25
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This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up