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  • Writer's pictureMarisa Guerin

King - A New Book, A Complex Life

Updated: Feb 9

February 5, 2024 – Marisa Guerin, PhD

It wasn’t fun to be sick for a week with a stomach bug. But it did mean that I was able to spend days wrapped in a shawl and sipping ginger tea, reading the first major new biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to be released in almost twenty years, King: A Life by Jonathan Eig. It has left me suffused with mixed feelings of compassion, admiration, sadness, and renewed faith.

The major outlines of the story and the time were familiar to me. I had read the massive three-volume history of the civil rights movement, America in the King Years, by Taylor Branch, as well as other works by and about Dr. King. Eig’s book is a bit different, however. He sets out to tell the story of the man himself – not just his role in history, but why and how did he come to take up that role? and at what cost? and from what burning source in his soul? It is a story of a very gifted, imperfect, human man who met his moment in history with unflinching dedication.

The book is based on extensive interviews as well as research on archival sources that were not available in earlier years, including some of the FBI surveillance tapes under wraps since the 1960’s. Still, it is a work of interpretation, as any biography must be. In particular, Eig wants to tell a full story, not just the heroic highlights of Dr. King's life that get repeated every January. He does not avoid writing about Dr. King’s flaws and limitations. If we are tempted to make Dr. King into a one-sided paragon of moral virtue, Eig’s book keeps us clear-eyed about the messy, uneven nature of integrity in a real person’s life. Interestingly, I found that the honesty about Dr. King’s failings only sharpened my appreciation for his enormous courage and faith.

There are a lot of paradoxes in this story, and the moral ones have something to do with the question: What does integrity really mean?

This man was afflicted with an out-of-control weakness for women other than his wife; yet she declared him faithful to their marriage, family, and partnership. It might sound odd, but I can understand why she might have said that, although there’s not space to explain it here.

He kept secrets about these liaisons and relationships, but in other matters he made agonizing decisions based on the strictest integrity with his Christian faith and his understanding of his call from God.

He was not skilled in the day-to-day requirements of organizational leadership and strategy, but he inspired and united people of all classes with his charismatic moral voice in a way that hasn’t been seen since.

By the accounts of those who knew him, he was charming, smart and kind – almost everyone who met him liked him enormously. He too often avoided interpersonal conflict and he lived with the blind spots of a patriarchal culture, but he did not succumb to hubris or narcissism. His humility was authentic, and his vision never faltered, even in the final years when he increasingly recognized the entrenched, global nature of systemic racism and injustice.

I don’t know if Jonathan Eig is a person of Christian faith or not, but he goes out of his way to make clear that the bright through-line of Dr. King’s life is his belief in a personal God who calls us to live with one another in peace and in love, without violence or hatred. This commitment was not a slogan, not hot air, not a cover for more calculated political goals. Dr. King knew that his core identity was missed by many – before anything else, he was a preacher of the gospel. Recognizing his relative privilege and his extraordinary gift, he used his fame to tie together the messages of love even for enemies, of economic and racial justice, and peace, not war.

If anything, I wish the book might have illuminated more for me the nature of Dr. King’s spirituality. How and when did he pray? From whom did he seek or receive spiritual direction? How did he stay connected to his own sources of inspiration? I don’t get the sense that Mr. Eig got much of a feel for that dimension of the soul’s journey, or maybe there was no one to ask about it. My own guess is that the hours Dr. King spent crafting his sermons, like the hours he spent writing the masterful Letter from the Birmingham Jail, were hours in which he pondered his beliefs, his motives, and his hopes. In the act of writing, perhaps he turned his insights into spiritual nourishment, just as much for himself as for his listeners and readers.

In any case, it seems clear that King never stopped growing in his moral understanding and vision. It might seem impossible to perceive the brutality of racism any more clearly than in the Jim Crow South, but Dr. King gained powerful insight into the bigger picture from his confrontations with the insidious, entrenched, often unconscious, nature of Northern racism. It shook him in a way that the unmasked bigotry of the South did not. As the Vietnam War metastasized and urban decay deepened, he grasped the interconnectedness of militarism, racism, and economic oppression and he increasingly understood the radical nature of the gospel message.

As I read the narrative, it seems to me that the more Dr. King understood how big and fundamental the problems were, the harder it became for him and his colleagues to shape effective boycotts, marches, and other interventions. Violence broke out more often and success became ambiguous.  King’s supporters scolded him to stick to civil rights and leave world peace and economic justice to other activists, but he would not back down from what he saw to be the moral imperative to resist hatred and oppression in all of its dimensions. I’m guessing that the scale of the problem-set he wanted to tackle probably outpaced the initial toolkit of nonviolent civil disobedience that he and his colleagues had perfected earlier in the movement.  However, he didn’t have the political capital, the coalition-building skills nor the time to build out a larger, more complex movement. He was brilliant and precocious and gifted, but he was after all only one man. When he died, Dr. King was swimming against a tide that was only growing more powerful every day. He was beset by enemies in political power that correctly saw how dangerous his moral leadership was to those who desired the status quo.

I did find myself thinking that at least in terms of the media world, Dr. King caught a break. He lived in an era when everyone saw and read the same national news. The collective conscience of the nation could be confronted by images and stories of racism that were unavoidable, and the political world was made to respond with new laws, fairer justice rulings, and federal action. I found myself wondering, How many of today’s prophetic voices are unable to break through the fractured and polarized world of contemporary news media? More than a few, I think. At the same time, Dr. King was only saved from the FBI’s campaign to discredit him because the mainstream media in the 1960’s refused to write about the evidence they were given of Dr. King’s sexual straying. With considerable candor, at least one editor said that if they were to write about King’s moral failings, they would have to write the same things about all kinds of famous men. Of course that was true.

In his final year or two Dr. King was often depressed and exhausted, carried many times by the devoted love and support of his family, his close friends and his loyal colleagues. Although he was completely true personally to nonviolence as a path for social change, he believed in redemptive suffering for himself; perhaps this led him to accept and even collude with the violence that his demanding life was inflicting on his body, psyche, and family life. Does God require such violence? I don’t believe so. Can one give one’s life voluntarily for others? Yes, of course; it is what Jesus did. At what cost to oneself and loved ones? Who can say? Not I.

Dr. King knew, at some deep level, that he would die as a result of his mission. He had made his peace with that likelihood. He was only thirty-nine years old when he was assassinated. In fewer than twenty years, he had changed the landscape of civil rights and nonviolent social change profoundly. In his last speech, he spoke of having been to the mountaintop and having seen the Promised Land…but clearly the journey was not ended, the victory not yet won.

After all, here we are. Injustice and modern lynchings still happen. Black men, women, and children die. Police brutality continues. Unconscious racism and systemic injustice are pervasive still, although also persistently revealed and confronted. The unwillingness of modern white power elites to permit an honest study of American history of race is unconscionable. Let no white person accept the myth that racism is a thing of the past or a false, woke, grievance of snowflakes. We know. We know.

What I don’t know is what my Black friends and neighbors would think of Eig’s book. Does its portrayal of Dr. King’s upbringing, relationships, failings and achievements seem like a contribution to a deeper understanding of the man and of his mission?  Or does Eig miss the mark, do an injustice of some kind to the memory of a great man?

I just don’t know. What I do know is that my quiet days absorbing the power of this man’s tragic and redemptive story were well spent. They take me to prayer, because the Spirit of God within us is the only wellspring for hope and for courage and for love in violent times. Prayer is the place I find myself when I cannot rely on my problem-solving ego, which is inclined to say “If we could just do x, y, and z, things will be fixed.” The ongoing struggle between love and hate doesn’t work that way. To live in trust that the God of love has the last word probably looks delusional to many. But that is the mystery at the heart of faith.

Dr. King’s example calls me, us, to redouble our willingness to live the mission we are given, whatever it may be. I have learned from St. Therese of Lisieux that even if I am not a mighty oak in God’s world like Dr. King was, I have my own place to bloom and grow. May I be willing to be an imperfect instrument towards a world that will someday flourish as the beloved community. May "justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

(If you read the book, let me know what you think.)


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