60 pages 2 hours read

Jonathan Eig

King: A Life

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2023

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Summary and Study Guide


King: A Life is a 2023 biography of Martin Luther King Jr. by Jonathan Eig. It is the first comprehensive biography of Martin Luther King in several decades. It draws on a host of newly available sources, including recently declassified transcripts and reports from the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which illegally recorded King for many years. Eig also draws on previously unavailable recordings by King’s close friends and family members, including his wife, Coretta, as well as a large cache of documents that belonged to the official historian of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The book has been the subject of widespread praise from journalists, scholars, and public figures, and is likely to stand as the definitive biography of King for years to come.

This summary is based on the first hardcover edition published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York: 2023).

Content Warning: The source material and this guide cite accounts of racism and racial violence, along with a brief mention of suicide.


The book begins with young Michael King, Martin’s father, climbing his way out of the desperate poverty of Stockbridge, Georgia, to become the associate pastor of a respected Baptist congregation in Atlanta. His first son, Michael, is born in 1929, eventually taking the name Martin Jr. after the father changes his own name to Martin, apparently after a trip to Germany to learn about Martin Luther. The young Martin grows up in a fairly stable home and tightknit community, displaying an early love of reading and eagerly listening to his father’s sermons. Following in his father’s footsteps, he attends Morehouse College, in preparation for becoming a Baptist minister. However, young Martin defies his father by going north for his graduate education, and then by courting and marrying a well-educated non-Atlantan who seemed at least as interested in a career as motherhood, Coretta Scott.

After earning his PhD from Boston University, King and Coretta first settled in Montgomery, Alabama, where King served as pastor to the Dexter Avenue Church. It was here that Rosa Parks’s protest of the city’s segregated bus system brought King into the struggle for civil rights. After leading a boycott for over a year, delivering powerful speeches and managing the painstaking details of a mass movement, King was henceforth the preeminent figure in the civil rights movement. He was not always successful—efforts to replicate the success of Montgomery in that city’s parks, or another campaign in Albany, Georgia, bore little progress. But King’s successes were tremendous, perhaps most notably the March on Washington of August 1963, when he delivered his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, which made him a political force to be reckoned with. After Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency in November 1963, he proved a valuable if uneven ally for King, ultimately guiding the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act banning discrimination in public places, and then the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The latter marked the apogee of King’s triumph, after which he struggled to build political support for a much broader movement targeting poverty and other forms of systemic injustice. Hounded by the FBI, distressed by an increasingly militant tone in the civil rights movement, and alienated from many of his allies for taking a stand against the Vietnam War, King looked to launch a Poor People’s Campaign as a perpetual protest in Washington, DC, to demand further action from Congress. It was in preparation for this mission that King went to Memphis, Tennessee, to help lead a strike of sanitation workers. On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated by James Earl Ray. In Eig’s estimation, King more than deserves the status of an American hero he has enjoyed since his death, but his legend must not obscure the severity of his demands and the relevance they still hold for contemporary America.