Early in the 20-teens, Jonathan Eig was researching his biography of Muhammad Ali and learned about the surprising friendship between Ali and Martin Luther King Jr.
In some ways the two Black celebrities were polar opposites. A member of the Nation of Islam, Ali opposed the kind of integration that King preached. But they both spoke forcefully against the war in Vietnam.
As Eig talked to Andrew Young, Dick Gregory, Harry Belafonte and others who knew King and Ali, “it kind of dawned on me that it was an amazing opportunity to ask people who knew Dr. King what he was like, and that the opportunity wasn’t going to be there much longer,” he said.
Eig, who has written biographies of Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Al Capone, was intrigued. “I realized I had an incredible opportunity.”
Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Conducting nearly 200 interviews and gaining access to recently declassified files, including copies of memos sent from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to President Lyndon Johnson and notes for an unpublished autobiography of “Daddy” King, Eig spent six years working on the intimate portrait.
Among the darkest discoveries was the revelation that Johnson was kept up to date on Hoover’s relentless campaign to undermine King but did nothing to stop it. Johnson enjoyed gaining the upper hand that Hoover’s hotel room wiretaps gave him in dealing with King, said Eig.
In the meantime, Hoover’s public statements denouncing King provided cover for those who would do King harm, convinced that they were carrying out the will of the top law enforcement chief in the land, he added.
Eig, 59, will appear in conversation with Valerie Jackson at the Carter Center at 7 p.m. on May 17 to talk about “King: A Life.”
He recently spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from his home in Chicago.
Credit: Doug McGoldrick
Credit: Doug McGoldrick
Do we need another biography of King?
How many Lincoln biographies are there? There are new ones every two years. There’s not been a straightforward hefty King bio since 1982, which was Stephen Oates’ book “Let The Trumpet Sound.” That’s way too long. We need more biographies than that.
What new declassified documents did you use?
I was able to get LBJ’s library to release, for the first time, hundreds of pages of documents, maybe in the low thousands, from Mildred Stegall’s files. (Stegall was Johnson’s closest personal aide and his primary liaison with the F.B.I.) Writing several times a week, she shows that Johnson was far more complicit than we knew, encouraging the campaign to surveil and harass King.
To me that’s the big takeaway. We already knew King was not faithful to Coretta. That’s not the important news here. The important news is how unbelievably aggressive the F.B.I. was in this campaign
If Johnson had told Hoover to back off, what would have happened?
Well, King might still be alive for one thing. And if King is alive, who knows what would have happened? Some of what he’s trying to tell us about income inequality and fair wages and reparations sinks in and becomes law.
To me what we see is one of the greatest relationships ever between a Democratic president and an activist is undermined by racism and paranoia, by obsession over a man’s sex life for no good reason, other than their obsessions. It’s a tragic chapter in American history that didn’t have to happen that way.
In your retelling of King’s speech in Montgomery, Alabama, just before the bus boycott began, he seems as if he doesn’t know what he’s walking into. Was he surprised by what happened?
He realized it was going to change his life. I think he appreciated the scope. He knew he was accepting a challenge. The fact that he has what we would describe today as a panic attack tells you a lot. It tells you he’s not prepared for this, and he was vulnerable to that kind of anxiety all of his life.
What are the challenges of writing such a biography when so many of King’s colleagues have died?
Historians have done a good job preserving those voices in oral histories and audiotapes. Of all the people who passed away before I started, I especially miss (speaking to) Coretta Scott King. I don’t think she’s gotten her due. I don’t think she’s gotten enough credit.
What about King’s children?
I tried very hard to get interviews with King’s children. They did not respond to my requests. The lawyer for the family told me that they would not be participating.
What were the limits on how much you could quote from King’s speeches and writings?
I had limits on how much I could use legally. I stayed within those limits so I was not violating the King family’s copyrights. I was very cautious about that. I did go to them and asked permission to use longer quotes, but they did not grant me that.
You tell a part of the story that’s missing from many accounts: the importance of women in the movement.
There is no question that the women were key. Look at what would have happened in Montgomery if not for Claudette Colvin or Rosa Parks. There were so many people working behind the scenes, or putting their bodies on the line. Once men take over, especially since they were Baptist preachers, sexism sets in.
One of the things that was clear to me is that Martin Luther King fell in love with and admired Coretta’s experience as a protester. Coretta has credentials as an activist that mattered to King and she continued to use those credentials after their marriage, even though she was stuck at home.
How did you decide to tell part of the story of the “Dream” speech at the March on Washington through the eyes of an unknown teenager named Francine Yeager from the South Side of Chicago?
Every once in a while you get an interview that blows your mind — from somebody who is so thoughtful. That experience changed her life; in particular she became a minister. It just changed her life. I thought, her quotes were so beautiful, it would be a shame not to use this.
How did you find her?
A friend of mine, Clarence Goodman, told me his aunt had been at the march, and I thought, I’m going to interview as many people as I can who were there. I don’t mind picking up the phone. I love picking up the phone. Clarence’s aunt went and Francine went with her. I don’t think she had ever told her story to a reporter before. Those are the fun interviews.
Jonathan Eig. The author of the new biography, “King: A Life,” will appear in conversation with Valerie Jackson 7 p.m., May 17, at the Carter Center, 441 John Lewis Freedom Parkway NE, Atlanta. jimmycarterlibrary.gov
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