“As it is with candles, so it was with him: the more light he gave, the less there was of him.” This is how the novelist Charles Johnson imagines Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose self recedes as his commitment to the struggle for justice deepens. At the start of his public life, King put on a mask when he entered the spotlight; in the years immediately preceding his death, at age thirty-nine, there was nothing left except the mask. King the man was hardly there at all.
In Dreamer, Johnson’s 1998 novel inspired by King’s final months, the civil-rights leader takes a body double who embraces all that is human in a way that King the icon cannot. Where King is earnest, his body double is crude and cynical; where King is stoic and selfless, the other is flagrantly egotistical. Yet the two men so resemble each other that audiences cannot distinguish them: King becomes two men at once, holy and profane.
What Johnson conjured in fiction, Jonathan Eig meticulously documents in his new biography of King. The steadfast moral beacon whose image is now chiseled in stone on the National Mall was actually troubled and all too human. Appreciating the folds of King’s character ought to inspire us to appreciate his leadership more, not less—so Eig would have it.
King liked to do impressions of his colleagues. He liked to tell jokes and to play jokes. In Memphis, just before his assassination, he called his mother and passed the phone to his brother mid-sentence, trying to trick her. (She noticed.) King could be lighthearted, but he was also dragged into melancholy, what today would likely be diagnosed as clinical depression. He was hospitalized for one of these spells when he learned he was awarded the Nobel Prize; he conducted a press conference from the hospital auditorium.
While King famously proclaimed, in his final speech, that God had allowed him to go to the mountaintop and glimpse the promised land, Eig shows that in reality it was his wife Coretta who enabled and guided the great orator’s moral ascent. She was an activist before he was; she was outspoken on Vietnam before he was; she was forever giving him confidence when his spirits wavered. Plus, she was birthing and caring for four children and an extraordinarily busy household on a tight budget. (King donated all of his speaking fees to civil-rights work.) At the civil-rights movement’s height, Coretta traveled frequently to sing at rallies, always checking in to make sure her children made it to their extracurriculars. When King was called away from the founding meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Coretta filled in for him.
As a father, King was engaged and playful—when he was around. He traveled so much that his young son, Martin Luther King III, longed to be a pilot when he grew up so they could travel together. When King was in Atlanta, a typical day included an hour or two in the evening with his family before he was off again, sometimes to a colleague’s home to strategize, sometimes to one of his lovers’ homes. Among his inner circle, King’s adultery was no secret. Coretta found out, too, if not from gossip, then from the tape recording that the FBI sent, though she was reluctant to believe that King was unfaithful.
Using newly released records from the FBI, Eig demonstrates how what started as J. Edgar Hoover’s usual obsession with chasing Communist shadows transformed into an obsession with King’s sex life. How different the media norms were in those days: despite the FBI shopping evidence of King’s adultery to many outlets, including those unsympathetic to King, the story never made it into print. The personal life of political figures was off limits.