Prophet of Justice:  Book Review of Biography of Martin Luther King Jr.

Printed from:

King:  A Life
by Jonathan Egg
Macmillan Publishers
May 2023
557 pages


Most Americans know something about Martin Luther King Jr. After all, in 1983 a federal holiday was named after him to celebrate his remarkable life and positive impact on the nation. Only one other American has had a federal holiday named after him:  George Washington. Only one other American has comparable yearly honors, through state holidays that mention him explicitly:  Abraham Lincoln.

Why does King deserve a place with Washington, the father of our nation, and Lincoln, who brought the country intact through the Civil War?

Because King was a force for good, a great Christian leader, and, above all, a man of great moral and physical courage. A man who changed the face of America for the better – one of the greatest men this country has ever produced.

But most people don’t the know the trajectory of his life.  Most know about his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, which took place at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. It is part of American folklore.

Some have read Letter from the Birmingham Jail, which King wrote in April 1963 from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama after being arrested during a non-violent protest march. We will return to this letter later in this essay, but for now suffice to say it is one of the great documents in American history.

But relatively few people know very much about the details of his life, which ended with his assassination on April 4, 1968, at age 39. Thankfully, Jonathan Eig, the author of King, has done us a great service by writing a superb biography about him. Eig has used new and untapped historical sources to paint a real-life portrait of MLK in this 557-page book. And he has done so in a way that chronicles not only MLK’s great character attributes but also his weakness and flaws.

MLK was raised in Atlanta, Georgia. Both his grandfather and his father were Baptist ministers. His parents were leaders in the black community; his father was pastor of one of the leading African-American churches in Atlanta, Ebeneezer Baptist Church. He was a strong Republican, because the Democratic Party was the party of slavery and had also opposed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. Moreover, the Democratic Party had then imposed Jim Crow and segregation on the South for 75 years. It was natural for King’s father to be a Republican.

King was very smart; he graduated from high school at 15 and from Morehouse College – the top college for black students in the South – at the age of 19. Then, he went on to Crozer Theological Seminary near Chester, Pennsylvania. Completing his seminary degree, he came here to Boston, where he received his doctorate of theology at Boston University. In Boston he met his wife-to-be, Coretta, who was studying music at the New England Conservatory. At age 25, he accepted a job as the Senior Pastor of the one of the two leading black churches in Montgomery, Alabama – the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

One of the outstanding things about Eig’s biography of MLK is that it tells the whole truth about MLK – his great courage and other virtues as well as his failings. In this regard, Eig sketches out how MLK, as early as high school, developed a pattern of incorporating parts of other people’s work in his speeches and written work. For a debate in his high school years, he had copied a significant portion of his address from speech by Henry F. Coleman., which was included in a 1928 book called Fifty Orations That Have Won Prizes in Speaking Contests. In his speech, MLK never attributed it to the author. He did the same thing again in a paper at Crozer Theological Seminary, and later in his doctoral thesis at Boston University. Scholars at Stanford University announced in 1990 – 22 years after MLK’s death – that he had plagiarized in his thesis from a book called The Theology of Paul Tillich as well as from a Boston University dissertation written three years earlier by a student named Jack Boozer. Eig points out that we all have clay feet, and this character trait was one of MLK two main shortfalls.

MLK arrived in Montgomery shortly before the famous bus boycott was launched by Rosa Parks in December 1955.  Shortly after the boycott began, MLK gave a powerful, prophetic speech to thousands of blacks who had assembled in and around the Holt Street Baptist Church, which catapulted him into the leadership of this most famous bus boycott. MLK was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which led the boycott, which lasted for almost a year. It took great moral courage and leadership skills to bring victory in Montgomery. It was during this boycott that MLK went to jail for the first time. In total, he would go to jail 29 times during his brief life – each time out of principle.

Three or four months into the bus boycott, the telephone rang one night at midnight. At the time, MLK was young – only 26, and he was married and had one child. The caller said:  “We are tired of you and your mess now. If you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.” As MLK told the story later, he said he was terrified. He wanted out – to leave town – to go back to Atlanta. He wanted safety. What did he do?  He fell to his knees and prayed: “Lord, I’m here trying to do what is right. I think that I’m right; I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”

Then, he said, the Holy Spirit spoke to his soul:  “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” He told this story to many people over the years and he always said that these words were the strength that sustained him.

Sometime later, King’s home was in fact dynamited; he was at his church, but his wife and small baby were in the house. By the grace of God, they were not harmed. His father pleaded with him to give up the leadership of the bus boycott, and even got the president of Morehouse College to ask him to stop and come back to Atlanta. But he refused. The homes of several other black leaders were bombed, too.

After he had moved back to Atlanta some years later, MLK was arrested there in 1960 when he joined students in a sit-in at the snack bar at Rich’s. From the snack bar, they went by elevator, Eig recounts, to the sixth-floor Magnolia Room, the store’s most elegant restaurant. When they refused to leave, MLK and 51 others were arrested. Charges were quickly dropped for most of them, but not for MLK. He remained behind bars because, prosecutors claimed, he had violated the terms of his parole for a traffic violation he had received earlier in the year. The judge found MLK guilty of violating parole and sentenced him to four months of hard labor in Georgia’s public works camp, working on a chain gang. He was taken from his cell and driven to Reidsville penitentiary six hours away.

The date was October 25, 1960 – two weeks before the 1960 presidential election. By this time, Richard Nixon had spoken with MLK often, and they had a solid relationship. On the other hand, Jack Kennedy had met MLK twice and had come away unimpressed. Would either of them take the political risk of reaching out to MLK and his family and losing white votes in the South? Some of Nixon’s advisers, including Jackie Robinson, urged him to telephone the jailed MLK or at least talk to the media about this disgrace. Nixon chose not to. Several of Kennedy’s advisers recommended that he take the risk and send a telegram of support to Coretta King. Instead, Kennedy called her and expressed his concern. The call lasted no longer than 90 seconds. But it might have won him the election. Many blacks, including MLK’s father, switched his vote from Republican to Democratic. Kennedy won the popular vote by only about 100,000 votes, and the essential states of Illinois (less than 9,000) and Texas (about 46,000) by a sliver.

King had been president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the leading civil rights organization, for three years – when he moved back to Atlanta. On his staff was Dorothy Cotton, an attractive and ebullient woman a year younger than King. A relationship developed between them. Cotton would later tell friends that she and MLK were “as close and devoted as husband and wife.” She would also say of King in an interview: “He loved his wife, but he also loved some other folks, too.” Eig describes in King how MLK’s father, Martin Luther King Sr., was a womanizer, and that King followed the same pattern. Because he traveled so much, he had girlfriends all over the country. Historians have chronicled the various American leaders over the past 100 years, including several presidents, who have shared this character trait as well.

This book review can only chronicle several of the great events in MLK’s life during his remarkable 12 years of civil rights leadership. So we will skip over the famous “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington in 1963 and the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, about which an excellent movie has been made. Instead let’s focus on Eig’s recounting the story of the Southern Christian Leadership Council’s targeting Birmingham, Alabama for a civil rights action in 1963, because Birmingham was the “South’s toughest city,” with Bull Connors the commissioner of public safety, in charge of the police.

By this time, MLK, who had traveled to India in the 1950s, had adopted and successfully implemented Mohandas Ghandi’s non-violent resistance methods. As a Christian minister, he well understood that the moral high ground was won by non-violent protesters, exercising their constitutional rights. Furthermore, MLK believed that unearned suffering was redemptive. He believed that enduring hardship, especially for a just cause, can lead to personal growth and social progress. And the horrifying scenes on TV of police dogs attacking non-violent protesters certainly ceded the moral high ground to MLK and the civil rights movement across the country.

While in jailed in Birmingham in April 1963, MLK wrote one of the most important documents in American history. On the day of his arrest, a group of white clergymen in Birmingham had issued a statement calling on black citizens to “withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham.” In solitary confinement, King wrote his famous answer. He wrote on margins of newspapers, on napkins, and on toilet paper, and even on the paper in which his sandwiches were wrapped. His lawyer, Clarence Jones, smuggled these scraps of paper out, and they were given to his secretary to type up. Once the pieces of paper had been deciphered and written up, the drafts went back to MLK in jail, who corrected them. The letter ultimately stretched to twenty double-spaced pages. Without access to his books and without help, King called on the best traditions and ideals of America, pointing to great philosophers and invoking St. Paul and the Old Testament prophets Amos and Jeremiah, creating one of the most moving documents ever written.

One of the most quoted lines is:  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He wrote that the protesters were really standing up for the best in the American dream. A month after he wrote it, The New York Post published passages from it, and by June it had been published in full throughout the country. What came to be called Letter From A Birmingham Jail should be compulsory reading for every American high school student.

Eig also describes in great detail how MLK from the days of the Montgomery bus boycott had a premonition that he would give his life for the civil rights movement. In Montgomery, he had said, “If someone has to die, let it be me.” King learned that President Kennedy was shot while he was with his wife Coretta at their home in Atlanta. They prayed for Kennedy. When he learned that Kennedy had died, he was silent for a long time and then said, “This is what’s going to happen to me.”

When MLK was at Selma in 1965, the U.S. Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach King, called MLK to tell him that the Justice Department had just learned about a failed attempt on his life. He was by now accustomed to death threats, but he said that he has been getting a large number of them recently. By late 1967, in Miami, there were death threats that were so credible that the FBI stood guard constantly at his hotel room for days, and he only went out of his room with security guards.

Several days before MLK went to Memphis to support a strike of sanitation workers in April 1968, a television crew arrived at his house in Atlanta. The interviewer asked him why there was no security at his house. MLK answered: “We don’t have any fences around here for protective purposes. I don’t have any armed bodyguards. I guess that it grows out of a philosophy that I have. I’m absolutely committed to this struggle for racial justice and for brotherhood. I guess every day I live under the threat of death … but I couldn’t allow this possibility to immobilize me. And I think ultimately freedom means fearlessness.”

Memphis had almost as bad a record on segregation as Birmingham. At one point, the strike turned ugly, and rather than being a vindication of King’s non-violent approach, it turned violent, including riots and looting.

On Wednesday, April 3, there was a big rally in the city for the sanitation workers. King was so exhausted that he did not go, letting his colleague, Ralph Abernathy, take his place. But the crowd would not let the event go on without King, so Abernathy called him at the motel and told him that he had to come. King went.

He gave a great speech. He went through the many victories of the Civil Rights Movement, and then he turned to his own mortality. He recounted the time he was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener by an insane black woman in Harlem in 1958, and came inches from death. He talked about the dynamiting and the bomb scare that had taken place just that morning in Atlanta and the death threats right there in Memphis.

But then he said:  “We have some tough times ahead, but it doesn’t really matter because I have been to the mountain top. I would like to live a long life, but I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And God has allowed me to go to the mountain. And I have looked over. And I have seen the Promised Land. And 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.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The next day, Thursday, April 4, King was on the balcony of his motel when he was shot by an assassin. He died a short time later, at age 39.

What was he talking about when he referred to the mountain top? He was referring to Moses, who having led his people in the wilderness for 40 years, was not allowed by God to come into the Promised Land. But God did allow him to go to Mount Nebo and look over into the Promised land where the Israelites would go under Joshua.

King was a heroic Christian leader with a great vision and enormous courage. Like Washington and Lincoln, he changed America for the better. Also like them, he is quoted often by “the better angels of our nature.” One of his greatest lines comes from a speech he gave in Montgomery at the conclusion of the March from Selma: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Just so, the arc has bent towards justice in America — sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly. May the march towards racial justice in this land press onward.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $6.7 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts.  Read other articles by him here.


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