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Jonathan Eig — The Truth About Martin Luther King Jr.

King: A Life (book cover)

Shermer and Eig discuss:

  • how to write biography
  • the history of the King family going back to slavery, Jim Crow, etc.
  • the influence of King Sr. on Martin’s intellectual and emotional development and the Ebenezer Baptist Church
  • King’s early experience with racism in the south
  • King’s religious beliefs and the influence of his faith on his civil rights activism
  • the influence of Gandhi and Reinhold Niebuhr on King’s strategic activism and deep belief in nonviolence
  • King’s education at Morehouse College and Crozer Theological Seminary
  • King’s politics
  • Black poverty
  • Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”
  • Malcolm X
  • Vietnam
  • Native Americans
  • gay rights
  • accusations of plagiarism
  • King’s infidelities
  • FBI’s COINTELPRO surveillance of King
  • Nichelle Nichols story about King and Star Trek
  • death threats and assassination
  • King’s legacy.

“I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice. But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brother and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”
—Coretta Scott King, hero of the gay rights movement, wife of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“My father did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage.”
—Dr. Bernice King, Baptist minister, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Each of us is two selves. The great burden of life is to always try to keep that higher self in command. And every time that old lower self acts up and tells us to do wrong, let us allow that higher self to tell us that we were made for the stars, created for the everlasting, born for eternity.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in: Warren, Mervyn A. 2001. King Came Preaching: The Pulpit Power of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Downer’s Grove: Varsity Press, 193–194.

Jonathan Eig is a former senior writer for the Wall Street Journal. He is the New York Times bestselling author of several books, including Ali: A Life; Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig; and Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season. Ken Burns calls him “a master storyteller,” and Eig’s books have been listed among the best of the year by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Sports Illustrated, and Slate. He lives in Chicago with his wife and children.

About the Book

Vividly written and exhaustively researched, Jonathan Eig’s King: A Life is the first major biography in decades of the civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. — and the first to include recently declassified FBI files. In this revelatory new portrait of the preacher and activist who shook the world, the bestselling biographer gives us an intimate view of the courageous and often emotionally troubled human being who demanded peaceful protest for his movement but was rarely at peace with himself. He casts fresh light on the King family’s origins as well as MLK’s complex relationships with his wife, father, and fellow activists. King reveals a minister wrestling with his own human frailties and dark moods, a citizen hunted by his own government, and a man determined to fight for justice even if it proved to be a fight to the death. As he follows MLK from the classroom to the pulpit to the streets of Birmingham, Selma, and Memphis, Eig dramatically re-creates the journey of a man who recast American race relations and became our only modern-day founding father — as well as the nation’s most mourned martyr.

In this landmark biography, Eig gives us an MLK for our times: a deep thinker, a brilliant strategist, and a committed radical who led one of history’s greatest movements, and whose demands for racial and economic justice remain as urgent today as they were in his lifetime.

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This episode was released on July 12, 2023.

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