cover image King: A Life

King: A Life

Jonathan Eig. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (688p) ISBN 978-0-374-27929-5

Martin Luther King Jr. went beyond meek nonviolence into far-reaching radicalism, according to this sweeping biography. Eig (Ali: A Life) gives a rousing recap of King’s triumphs as a civil rights leader—the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 march on Washington, the 1965 procession from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.—as well as his despondency later in the 1960s as his anti-poverty campaigns struggled and Black energies drifted from nonviolent protest toward armed militance and “Black power.” Contesting accusations by Malcolm X and others that King was an “Uncle Tom,” Eig casts him as a revolutionary who reshaped the South with his integrationism, became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War despite losing political support and drawing the ire of the FBI, and developed a deep critique of systemic racism and economic inequality that called for reparations for slavery and a guaranteed minimum income. King is no saint in this complex, nuanced portrait—his plagiarism and womanizing are probed in detail—but Eig’s evocative prose ably conveys his bravery, charisma, and spell-binding oratory (rallying the Montgomery boycotters, “he called out in his deep, throbbing voice, and the people responded, the noise of the crowd rolling and pounding in waves that shook the building as he built to a climax”). It’s an enthralling reappraisal that confirms King’s relevance to today’s debates over racial justice. Agent: David Black, David Black Literary. (May)