A 15-Foot Peek into Emmett Till’s Casket: A Review of King: A Life

Photograph Source: Florida Memory – Public Domain

There are reportedly 16 biographies of Dr. Martin Luther King. I have read three of them. The first is a book sanctioned by Mrs. Coretta Scott King and edited by Stanford University professor of history Dr. Clayborne Carson: The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.

The second is a candidly searing book titled The Plot to Kill King: The Truth Behind the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., written by a King family friend and lawyer, Dr. William Francis Pepper. Dr. Pepper helped the King family win a 1999 civil suit that found Memphis Tennessee restaurant owner Lloyd Jowers responsible for Dr. King’s assassination, and government agencies involved in the conspiracy. A suit that Jowers, by way of deposition, proclaimed James Earl Ray was a scapegoat. A suit that utilized over seventy witnesses—took four weeks to conclude—and less than one hour for the jury to reach a unanimous verdict in favor of the King family.

The third book is the biography King: A Life, written by the critically extolled biographer Jonathan Eig. Although the book was released May 16th, 2023, I reluctantly decided to read it a few days ago and finished it last night, February 10, 2024. My delay and lack of enthusiasm are the result of the literary (and cinematic) whitewashing, tabloidesque, and credulous approach to Dr. King’s legacy and brutal demise, but King: A Life has been getting so many lauded reviews and its share of black history month attention I was compelled to find out what all the fervor was about. I am sorry to report that it didn’t take long for me to realize that my apprehension was, for the most part, justified.

In the first sentence of the book’s prologue Eig romantically promulgates: “On December 5, 1955, a young Black man became one of America’s founding fathers.”

Dr. Martin Luther King was a lot of things: courageous, intelligent, a great orator, and a loving father to name a few. Anyone who admired him and the valor, diligence, and compassion he gave this world, through 12 and a half years of indelible service, would not find it difficult to adulate him with an array of befitting superlatives—but, in my opinion, “founding father” is one of the few terms of endearment that does not belong on that interminable list.

There are undoubtedly thousands of American men who would find it utterly flattering to be associated with the tyrannical likes of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison, especially men of the MAGA ilk. But it is hard for me to conceive that a humanitarian like Dr. King would appreciate such an inapt depiction. For a biographer who (after being asked by King’s friends and colleagues, “Why another book about King? What are your intentions?”) asserts, “We need the real King, not the candied coated one,” Eig got off to a treacly, saccharine start.

That said, the author writes with delightful, crystal prose, and even though this is my first-time reading Eig, it is easy to see why his work has received laurels and plaudits over the past decade—especially if you subscribe to an adherence to the biographical metaphors of Portrait and Autopsy. Eig, in my opinion, was loyal to both—yet more so with his “portrait” of Dr. King.

Esteemed biographer and former Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, Dame Hermione Lee states, in her book, Biography: A Very Short Introduction, the “Portrait (metaphor) suggests empathy, bringing to life, (and) capturing character. The portraitist (should also) simulate warmth, energy, idiosyncrasy, and personality through attention to detail and skill in representation.”

Many of the attributes in Professor Lee’s analysis glow and twinkle in King: A Life like a December evening at Rockefeller Center. For example, It is difficult to read the energetic, culminating way Eig narrates the paradigm-shifting 1950s developments (King marrying young civil rights activist Coretta Scott, accepting the role of pastor of the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery Alabama, the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs Board of Education, the radical emergence of Rock N Roll and artists like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, the unspeakable murder of young Emmett Till, all crescendoing into December 1, 1955 – the day Mrs. Rosa Parks flouted a Montgomery Alabama bus driver and sparked the Civil Rights Movement) and not give credence to the celestial power of kismet.

Expounding on her portrait analysis Professor Lee flips the theory on its prickly side:

 “The image of the portrait, though a more appealing one than the autopsy (metaphor), also suggests what can go wrong with biography — flattery, idealization, flatness, inaccuracy, (and) distortion.” That mentioned, I agree with the Professor, the portrait metaphor, as fraught as it can be, is an indispensable element in any ambitious biography, and Eig paints his book with a capable, steady hand.

According to Professor Lee, “(The) two metaphors (Portrait and Autopsy, although different in approach) have something in common. Portraits taken from life and posthumous autopsies both make an investigation of the subject which will shape how posterity views them. Both must pay precise attention to detail. Both can be revelatory. And the success of both depends on the practitioner’s expertise and judiciousness.” (emphasis added)

Elaborating further on the autopsy metaphor, Professor Lee describes it as one that “invokes biography as a process of posthumous scrutiny, (but ironically) may not even be able conclusively to prove the cause of death.” She, however, does not suggest that the aforementioned possibility should dissuade a biographer from probing the death of a subject—an approach, I believe, is imperative to any posthumous biography of a martyr who was murdered under dubious, vacillating circumstances.

In an August 18, 2023 interview posted on The Real News Network website, writer/podcaster Anders Lee asked Jonathan Eig:

“As a biographer, how did you arrive at the decision to not take a position on James Earl Ray’s guilt or innocence, and do you have a personal opinion on who was really responsible for King’s murder?”

Eig replied:

“Well, I thought long and hard about that because whole books have been written on the conspiracy theories, and nobody’s proved anything.”

Eig goes on to say:

“What’s really important about who killed Martin Luther King Jr. is that we did, our society did. Because we created the conditions. The F.B.I. intentionally created the conditions in which somebody might feel like they were doing their country a favor by taking out Martin Luther King Jr. And it’s no surprise that, under those conditions, somebody like James Earl Ray would think, I’m going to take a gun and I’m going to do my country a favor by getting rid of this guy.”

Grouping Dr. King with white supremacist slavers in the opening sentence of a book can be dismissed as an overzealous start. But framing King’s assassination in a way that suggests it was just the product of unfortunate conditions and weaponized propaganda, is not only an insult to all that Dr. King sacrificed, but as a biographer it is negligent and quite frankly inconsiderate to Mrs. King and the King family—a devastated yet shrewd menage who, for coherent reasons, were reluctant to accept the FBI or DOJ’s report on the assassination of their beloved son, husband, and father.

The brilliant biographer Stacy Schiff, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Cleopatra: A Life, introduces the book’s first chapter with the following epigram:

“Man’s most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe.” — Euripides

Eig’s opinions and omission of the 1999 King Family vs Jowers Civil Lawsuit in King: A Life, along with his assertion that “whole books have been written on the conspiracy theories, and nobody’s proved anything,” is an obscure, mendacious indication of his faith in the FBI and DOJ reports on the King assassination, and James Earl Ray’s spurious conviction for the crime.

The exclusion of the Civil Suit notwithstanding, it is easy to see that King: A Life is well researched. The book probes the FBI’s sinister and unscrupulous COINTELPRO documents on Dr. King. How an author can be immersed in all of that (at times) hostile and unethical information and not question the integrity of the FBI and subsequent DOJ reports on the King assassination, is difficult to comprehend. That, in many ways, would be equivalent to Robert Kennedy Jr. referring questions about the gruesome demise of his uncle to the nugatory pages of the 1964 Warren Commission Report—an “official” investigation that RFK Jr. has unequivocally denounced. In fact, according to journalist Bill Hutchinson in a 2018 ABC news piece, the presidential candidate has also repudiated the LAPD investigation that determined convicted assassin Sirhan Sirhan fired the fatal shot that killed his father, Attorney General Robert Kennedy—and has said, “The case needs to be reinvestigated.” But I digress.

The Presidential Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy (otherwise known as The Warren Report) and the chicanery associated with it has forever damaged the credibility of government-funded investigations, especially the ones regarding political assassinations. And though everyone, including biographers of martyrs, is entitled to their opinion, according to fellow life chroniclers, the process of arriving at their conclusions and what they do with the information they procure should be subjected to higher standards and a more intricate procedure.

Walter Isaacson, the distinguished biographer of towering figures like Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and the late Henry Kissinger, revealed a compelling truth in a Graduate Center biography lecture titled: Lessons About Living with Geniuses.

While talking about his literary journey in completing his Kissinger biography Isaacson said that “the documents and the memos of conversation in Kissinger’s archives were (in) the Library of Congress, and other places, including the Council on Foreign Relations—you’d find all the documents and they were fascinating. But when I interviewed Mort Halperin (1969 Senior Staff Member of the National Security Council Staff) and Winston Lord (fellow N.S.C.S. Member as well as special assistant to Henry Kissinger) and others who had actually written those memos of conversation, they told me, Oh those aren’t true. Those were made up. They had been crafted by Kissinger to impress (President) Nixon or to baffle future historians.”

Isaacson, sharing his wisdom with fellow biographers, insisted that “the lesson learned is, triangulating archival research with journalistic questions, even when it comes to an Einstein or somebody who’s not still around, is the most important way to try to get at the truth.”

I don’t have Mr. Isaacson’s experience or academic qualifications, but I don’t think it would be in error for a biographer to consider, the sworn testimony and results of a 1999 civil suit, that conflicts with a preceding (and ensuing) investigation regarding the same crime, “archival research” and “journalistic questions.”

King: A Life is a book that marches tall, assured, and candid through the history of the King family—from the post-antebellum years of Martin Luther King Senior’s humble beginnings—to the emergence of his precocious namesake and the revolutionary zeitgeist he seemed destined to lead. But when Eig arrives at Dr. King’s devastating conclusion the assured, candid tone of the book atrophies. And after taking what he calls “a long hard look,” Eig sits compliantly in the farcical chair that J. Edgar Hoover prepared for historians and posterity.

 Interestingly, in King: A Life, Eig quotes the great James Baldwin musing on diligence, veracity, and the utility of staring down the latter:

“What it comes to finally, is that the nation has spent a large part of its time and energy looking away from one of the principal facts of its life. This failure to look reality in the face diminishes a nation as it diminishes a person.” “Those who love America and claim to love freedom,” Baldwin continued, need to take a “hard look” at themselves. “If we are not capable of this examination, we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental failures in the history of nations.”

To face, understand, and accept what truly happened to Dr. King is an excruciating endeavor. After reading The Plot to Kill King, a book I smoked over three years ago, I still cannot drive down one of the many thoroughfares named in his honor, like the one I frequent in South Norwalk Connecticut, without the pangs of grief wrenching underneath my jacket. That anguish, I believe, is why Jonathan Eig and a lot of people are so willing to accept Hoover’s James Earl Ray narrative because looking at this country (and its institutions and factions) for who we really are is like staring down into the gory inhumane reality of Emmett Till’s open casket.

As right as Baldwin is, and he is unerringly right, everyone is not strong enough to face that kind of reality. The option to look away, however, does not ethically apply to writers, artists, and especially biographers, which brings me to an uncomfortable truth… some biographies are not for the faint of heart.

There is a big difference, for example, in going after a biography of the great baseball icon Lou Gehrig (another one of Eig’s books) and excavating the compelling, tragic life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Eig might want to do himself a favor and stick to sports and entertainment heroes—revolutionaries and martyrs demand the kind of maturity and literary gallantry he may not have or is willing to offer.