Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Q&A with Jonathan Eig




Jonathan Eig is the author of the new biography King: A Life. His other books include Ali: A Life. A former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and other publications, he lives in Chicago.


Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Martin Luther King Jr., and how long did it take to complete the project?


A: While researching my Ali book, I found myself interviewing several people who knew Martin Luther King Jr. quite well, including Dick Gregory, Harry Belafonte, Andrew Young, and Jesse Jackson. I was astonished to realize that the last cradle-to-grave biography of MLK had been published in 1982 by Stephen Oates. I couldn’t believe it. That’s much too big a gap for a figure of such importance.


I also realized, obviously, that there was an opportunity here to do the kind of research I like best, with a combination of interviews and archival exploration. But the opportunity was not going to wait. Most of the people who knew King were in their 80s and 90s. I would have to hurry. So I began traveling the country and conducting interviews even before I had a contract to write a book.


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about King?


A: That’s another reason why I wanted to write this book. I feel like we’ve watered down our image of King. We’ve turned him into a monument, a holiday, and a Hallmark card. Somehow, almost incomprehensibly, we’ve caused people to lose interest in the details of his life.


I wanted to write a book that helped you understand him as a person, with all the nuance his story deserves. I wanted to learn his dog’s name (Topsy) and whether he chewed his fingernails (he did). I wanted to write a book that made you feel his joy and pain. He suffered from anxiety. He was hospitalized several times for what he call exhaustion and others called depression.


I wanted to remind readers that he was not a safer alternative to Malcolm X, as some have portrayed. He was dangerous. He was radical. He dared to believe he could fundamentally change American society. And that’s what got him killed.


Q: The author David J. Garrow said of the book, “Digitization and the web have made a slew of new documentary resources available, and Eig has mined them superbly.” How did you conduct the research for the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I started out in a rush to do as many interviews as I could, and meanwhile I began to survey the archives. Garrow helped tremendously – not only in giving me access to all his papers but also in helping me navigate thousands of pages of newly released FBI documents.


I found a ton of new and surprising things. I found an unpublished autobiography written by King’s father. I found tapes Coretta recorded while working on her memoir. I found thousands of pages of notes taken by King’s personal archivist. It was a pleasant surprise to see that even with a subject as well documented as King there were so many new veins of material to tap.


Q: You begin the book with a description of King on Dec. 5, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. Why did you start here?


A: I would argue that King became King on Dec. 5, 1955. He wasn’t looking to become a national figure. He was trying to get to know his new church and finish his doctoral dissertation. He had a new baby at home. He wasn’t looking for a new job or planning to lead a sweeping new movement.


But the opportunity arose, and he was ready. He stepped into the abyss, ready to fight for justice, to stand up for his convictions, knowing it was the kind of thing that got Black people killed in America. After that moment, he had many chances to stand down, to let others lead the attack, but he never did. I think he was as courageous a man as America has ever produced. He proved it again and again – in Birmingham, Selma, Chicago… But the best illustration of his courage has to be the first time, because he’d never done it before.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a couple of podcasts and a TV pilot, and I’m on the prowl for a new book idea.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My book The Birth of the Pill will soon be presented as play at TimeLine Theatre in Chicago, written by the amazing Jessica Huang. I’m so excited!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jonathan Eig.

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