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A human view of a civil rights icon

Historian Jonathan Eig talks to a Portland audience about his intimate portrait of MLK Jr.'s American journey in "King: A Life," the first biography of the human rights crusader in 40 years.

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Historian Jonathan Eig and his book “King: A Life,” the first biography of Martin Luther King Jr. in four decades.

Jonathan Eig, author of the biography King: A Life, kicked off the new season of the Oregon Historical Society‘s Mark Hatfield Lecture Series with a presentation earlier this week at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Eig’s book is the first biography of Martin Luther King Jr. in forty years. He presents an intimate portrait of MLK Jr., portraying him more as a human being than as a larger-than-life civil rights leader. In this regard, Eig succeeds admirably and does justice to his subject.

Eig discussed King’s early life growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, as the second child of three children. Their father, Daddy King, was a preacher at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Their mother, Alberta King, led the choirs there. Martin Jr. was a very talented student who was able to skip several grades and began his undergraduate degree at Morehouse College at age 15. After graduation from Morehouse in 1948, MLK Jr. decided he wanted to attend Crozer Theological Seminary, near Philadelphia. He graduated from Crozer in 1951 with a Bachelor of Divinity.

Daddy King wanted MLK Jr. to become a preacher and gave him the opportunity to make his first sermon at Ebenezer in 1947 before he left to attend Crozer. Daddy King had appointed MLK Jr. as assistant pastor at Ebenezer, and by 1948 MLK Jr. knew that becoming a preacher was his only career option. After seminary, MLK Jr. decided to pursue a doctoral degree. He selected Boston University because he wanted to study with the noted theologian Edgar S. Brightman.

It was in Boston that King met Coretta Scott, who was studying voice at the New England Conservatory with the intention of becoming an opera singer. According to Eig, Coretta was an experienced activist.  As an undergraduate at Antioch College in Ohio, she had challenged a rule that prevented Black students from student-teaching in local schools. In addition, Coretta joined a protest when a barbershop refused to cut Black people’s hair.

Finally, she supported Henry Wallace for president in 1948 and attended the Progressive Party’s national convention as a student delegate. She taught King about activism. After dating for several years, the couple were married on June 18, 1953. They began their new life together in Boston, where King eventually received his PhD in theology from Boston University in 1955.

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In 1954, MLK Jr. began his preaching career at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was in Montgomery that MLK Jr. discovered his true calling and came to be a civil rights leader for Black people in the United States.

Eig adroitly explained in his lecture that as the newly appointed pastor of Dexter Baptist Church, King had no interest in getting involved in the bus boycott by Blacks because of ill treatment by the bus drivers. But after accepting a speaking engagement at Mongomery’s Holt Steet Baptist Church on December 5, 1955, he decided that being a civil rights activist was his calling. So began MLK Jr.’s thirteen-year career to help Black Americans achieve equal rights.  According to Eig, King believed that he needed to fight for justice for the Black community.

In 1955, the Birmingham, Alabama, bus boycott was sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus. Eig notes that the Birmingham bus boycott was one of MLK Jr.’s most successful civil rights efforts because it demonstrated the potential for nonviolent mass protest to challenge racial segregation and served as an example to other southern campaigns.  

In 1963, a major protest was held in Birmingham, Alabama, with King and his followers protesting segregation in the city.  After some police violence against the protestors a compromise was reached that removed “Whites Only” and “Blacks Only” designations on drinking fountains and restrooms and vowed to improve employment opportunities for Blacks. Finally, an agreement was reached between the City of Birmingham and King’s followers to form a biracial committee that would monitor the progress of the agreement and improve integration in Birmingham.

The protests attracted the attention of President John F. Kennedy and the media covering the segregationist Commissioner of Public Safety’s “Bull” Conner’s cruelty to the protestors.  Afterward, President Kennedy quipped: “I don’t think you should all be totally harsh on Bull Connor. After all, he has done more for civil rights than almost anybody else.”  

Eig notes that the success of the Birmingham campaign paved the way for King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, which was attended by 250,000 people. The march called for congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act, a federal jobs program, enactment of a bill prohibiting job discrimination, and integration of public schools. King ended the march with his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

The March on Washington contributed to MLK Jr.’s soaring popularity. Soon after the speech King went to the White House, where President Kennedy congratulated him. At the meeting, Vice President Lyndon Johnson warned that the civil rights legislation faced uncertain prospects, saying, “[The President] … can plead and lead and persuade and even threaten Congress, but he can’t run the Congress.”

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Dr. Martin Luther King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963. Photo: National Archive and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons.

According to Eig, MLK Jr. paid a huge price for the successful March on Washington because the FBI’s William Sullivan, head of intelligence operations, sent a memo to his agents in the United States calling MLK Jr. “…the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of community, the Negro and national security.”  

In addition, President Kennedy and his Attorney General (and brother) Robert Kennedy authorized the FBI to begin surveillance of King in his home and offices and tapping his phone lines. Eig believes that the antipathy of the FBI (in particular, of J. Edgar Hoover, the agency’s head) was motivated by power, underscoring the fact that they did everything they could to undermine MLK Jr. 

Eig also states that President Johnson was complicit with Hoover in ordering taps on King. Still, after Lyndon Johnson was inaugurated as president in November 1963, one of the first things he did was contact MLK Jr. Johnson became an ally and told King that he would help pass civil rights legislation in Congress. At the same time, Hoover passed along transcripts to the president, revealing MLK’s affairs along with his civil rights plans. 

Eig stated that Hoover accused MLK Jr. of being a member of the Communist Party, which was untrue. These revelations, according to Eig, proved damaging to MLK Jr., hurting his ability to lead, and compromising his relationship with President Johnson. Hoover and the FBI’s efforts to discredit MLK Jr. by tapping his phone lines continued unabated throughout this era.

MLK Jr. was also victimized, Eig told his Portland audience, by individuals such as Alex Haley, who interviewed him for a 1965 article in Playboy magazine. Haley incorrectly portrayed MLK Jr. and Malcom X as antagonists. Eig states that the two leaders respected one another but disagreed about the use of violence. According to Eig, “King and Malcom had discovered common ground in their attacks on racism and inequality.”

In April 1968, MLK’s final civil rights effort was the Memphis, Tennessee, sanitation worker’s strike. According to Eig, MLK Jr.’s speech at Mason Temple in Memphis is noteworthy because it included the famous line: “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” On April 4, 1968, MLK Jr. was assassinated.

Eig’s lecture successfully shows MLK Jr.’s human frailties and spellbinding leadership in the civil rights movement.  Eig notes that King during his life suffered from depression and tried to commit suicide on two occasions. King also conducted several affairs during his marriage to Coretta. At the same time, Eig believes that King was moved by his faith. As a result, King could not compromise because he was a preacher. According to Eig, MLK Jr. was a religious leader who lived what he believed and suffered for it. Still, much is to be gained by reading Eig’s book King: A Life.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

William C. Stack has been an educator for 37 years, teaching history during that time with a focus on U.S. history and world history. He also worked for the Pew Charitable Trust. Mr. Stack earned his undergraduate degree in history and a master’s degree from the University of Portland. He earned two fellowships to study American history at Oxford University and was a recipient of a Fulbright Teacher Exchange award. Mr. Stack has written several articles and a book about various aspects of American and Pacific Northwest history:Historical Photos of Oregon(2010),John Adams(2011),George Flavel(2012) andGlenn Jackson(2014).

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