Justice  /  Q&A

Restoring the Real, Radical Martin Luther King Jr. in “King: A Life”

A new biography of King emerges at a "critical juncture" for his legacy.

Jonathan Eig

One thing that really intrigued me was the way that by the end, guys like Levison or Bayard Rustin who tried to forge King as a radical and tried to lead him into this role as a national movement leader, were uncomfortable with just how radical King wanted to be, and they were trying to rein him in. They were saying, “No, stick to voting rights in the South. That’s what you’re good at. That’s where we can have the most impact. Don’t go to Chicago. Don’t talk about the war. This is costing us fundraising support.”

It’s actually painful to read the transcripts, and to see him saying to his strongest allies—the people who’ve been with him since the beginning, people who truly love him— “Don’t you understand me?… Don’t you get it?” He’s refusing to settle for the pragmatic choice, and these guys who thought they were bringing him along into the movement and teaching him how to be a radical—suddenly, he’s eclipsed them.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

There’s one point early on in the book, during the Montgomery period, where King wonders if the militant and the moderate could be combined in the same speech, and you say, “It was a question he would ask in various forms for the rest of his life.” There were always people around who seemed more moderate and more militant than King, and no matter where he stood ideologically, he always found himself at the center of the movement, with a degree of responsibility he could never escape. Stokely Carmichael never had to deal with that level of responsibility, and I don’t believe he ever envied King’s position. Do you think King’s ability to balance the militant and the moderate proved a blessing and a curse?

Jonathan Eig

Yes. And I would point out before I answer that, that the same is true for Malcolm X. Malcolm does not have half his power if he doesn’t have King to play off. Because by putting King in the position of being the conservative, Malcolm can stand out more dramatically as the radical. But King was almost born for this role, by coming from a fairly middle class family in Atlanta, by being of the South but also being urban, by having “The Reverend Doctor” attached to his name at a time when half of all Americans were in church every Sunday. You have to have a little bit of grudging respect for a minister, even if you’re a racist. And a lot of white ministers in the South were wrestling with this.