Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at a press conference on June 8, 1964 (Walter Albertin/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division).

“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.

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.


One way we misremember King is to erase his humanity, making him all holy, all the time. Another way we misremember King is to mishear his message. It is tempting to focus on his famous phrases that sound uplifting and uncontroversial. This means turning away from King’s own books and most of his articles, sermons, and speeches to focus primarily on his immortal oration delivered in 1963 before the Lincoln Memorial. Before two hundred thousand mostly Black marchers, King spoke of “the solid rock of brotherhood,” the need to reject “drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” and the day when children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In short, it is tempting to read King as an advocate for interracial solidarity and for colorblind public policy.

Moderates and conservatives who imagine themselves to be championing King’s vision today perform a sleight-of-hand. They take King’s opposition to racism and his vision of a future without it to mean that he believed race is an aspect of the human condition that we ought to ignore. But this conclusion is absurd: King was a Black preacher, promoting justice for Black Americans, facing opposition not only from avowed white supremacists but also from white moderates (the addressees of his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”). The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by King, was designed to be a Black-led organization with white allies only in supporting roles.

The reason King is so frequently misread has less to do with his Black identity than with his Christian identity. Because he was a Christian, not only a preacher but a theologian, he was able to keep two time horizons in mind at once. There is God’s time, so far in the future that we can only access it in our dreams. In that dream-time, as he proclaimed to the crowd, “little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” But that is not the time in which mere mortals live, and it is not the time in which politics operates. In this more familiar, worldly sense of time, Black folks need to join together to build political power and to lead attacks on racist laws and practices. When the phrase came into vogue, King had no trouble joining in the chorus shouting, “Black is beautiful.”

For King, that mysterious realm of the divine conjured in dreams is tethered to the practical realities of our world by natural law. Human nature makes accessible some parts of God’s law, and we notice that God’s law is contrary to the world’s law—for example, to the laws of the state of Alabama that required segregated seating on public transportation. From the initial mass meeting in Montgomery, when King stepped into the spotlight for the first time, he invited his audience to notice the mismatch between human and divine law, and to respond with collective action. In short, King was not advocating for race-blind public policy; he was advocating for an end to racist policies because they had no place in the Kingdom of God. To move in the right direction, toward that Kingdom, often requires race-conscious policies, and racial pride.

Some progressive devotees of King distinguish a later, “radical” phase in his political career, a phase that often corresponds to a shift in his primary audience from Black Christians to white secularists. But Eig shows that this narrative is too simple. Throughout his public career, King spoke and wrote as a Black Christian. His push for economic and housing justice in the last years of his life, which took a toll on his national popularity, was motivated by his belief that poverty ran against God’s law. The same was true of his opposition to the Vietnam War, which sunk his popularity even more. The way these convictions flowed from King’s Black Christianity was not always explicit: as his fame grew, he was surrounded by aides and ghostwriters who shared King’s political conclusions but were uncomfortable with his theological reasoning. Indeed, Eig reminds readers that King’s most famous speech on Vietnam, delivered at Riverside Church in 1967, was composed almost entirely by others.

King was not advocating for race-blind public policy; he was advocating for an end to racist policies because they had no place in the Kingdom of God.

King persisted in his convictions even when they weakened his standing in the eyes of the public. He rejected worldly political calculus as the final criterion of what course of action to pursue. For him, God had the last word, not human beings. It is incomplete to say that King held true to his convictions. He held true to God, and his moral convictions followed from that faith.

Today, in a significantly more secular cultural context, racial-justice advocates sometimes struggle to explain why we should step beyond the demands of worldly political calculus. If “abolish the police” polls badly, wouldn’t it make sense to substitute another slogan, another policy goal? But then again, the slate of racial-justice issues today is quite different from the issues faced by King and his cohort.

Or is it? Eig is particularly effective at gently reminding readers that there are striking parallels between the way racial justice was framed in the 1950s and ’60s and the way it is framed in the 2010s and ’20s. In his 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait, King called for reparations for the unpaid wages Black Americans should have earned during slavery. At a Chicago press conference in 1965, King talked about the way that contemporary racial inequities were a continuation of the U.S. slave system. After the 1966 Watts uprising, King told Mike Wallace that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Particularly resonant is Eig’s reminder that demands to end police violence were at the heart of the civil-rights movement. Yes, protesters wanted an end to segregation, but what drew thousands of protesters into the street and glued millions around the world to their television screens was police violence against unarmed Black Americans. And the police violence caught by cameras was only the tip of the iceberg: when the sun went down all over the South (and North), in cities and in the country, during traffic stops and in homes, police officers beat, maimed, and sometimes murdered Black Americans on the flimsiest of pretexts. Police officers were cruel, but so was the rest of the ostensibly even-handed justice system. We forget that King was often arrested not for breaking the laws of segregation but for breaking court injunctions against protesting segregation. The whole system was rotten.


The moral philosopher Susan Wolf once offered a provocation: we shouldn’t aspire to become moral saints. In fact, the life of the moral saint may be very far from the good life. If a moral saint is someone who tries to be as good as possible with every action they take, then their extreme cultivation of the moral virtues might crowd out all the non-moral virtues. The moral saint cannot enjoy good music, books, or wine; that would take time and energy away from helping others and bringing justice to the world. The moral saint would have to be earnest and humorless, for humor requires detachment from the pursuit of goodness.

We are tempted to imagine King as a moral saint, exceedingly earnest with a single-minded focus on improving the world. That is not who King was. Nor does it describe Christian saints. It is only from a secularist perspective that saintliness is measured by maximizing good actions at each moment in time. In the hagiographical tradition, Christian saints have good days and bad days. They curse God and they repent. Their virtues battle their vices. Their saintliness comes about because of their commitment to bringing the shape of their life into conformity with the life of Christ, not moment-by-moment but as a whole. And saints necessarily fail at this: a saint imitates Christ, but a saint is not Christ. Nonetheless, a saint provides inspiration for those who, similarly, wish to model their lives on perfect goodness.

At his best, King approached this sort of saintliness. He allowed his commitment to the kingdom of God to trump worldly interests without forgetting about the world. He recognized, condemned, and mobilized against evil, whether it was the black and white of segregation laws or the insidious vice of moderation in the face of injustice. He used his unmatched gifts as an orator to move bodies and consciences.

At his worst, King forgot the difference between imitating Christ and becoming Christ. He took unseemly pleasure in redemptive suffering, which distracted from organizing for justice. He told his followers that the more pain they were in, the more justice would be achieved. When King embraced this fantasy of total selflessness, he turned to womanizing, he abandoned his family, he turned melancholic. It was as if his quest for saintliness precipitated the crude body double that Charles Johnson imagined for him, the anti-King who would claim “All narratives are lies.… Words are just webs. Memory is mostly imagination.”

Jonathan Eig has written a biography that points us to King at his best, to King convinced that words bear truth, that narrative moves us toward goodness, and that memory, well preserved, carries beauty that motivates and inspires. 

A Life

Jonathan Eig
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$16.99 | 688 pp.

Vincent Lloyd is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination (Yale University Press).

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Published in the September 2023 issue: View Contents
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