We converse in depth with journalist Jonathan Eig about his new ebook, King: A Life, the primary main biography of the civil rights chief in additional than 35 years, which pulls on unredacted FBI information, in addition to the information of the non-public aide to President Lyndon Baines Johnson, to point out how Johnson and others partnered within the FBI’s surveillance of King and efforts to destroy him, led by director J. Edgar Hoover. Eig additionally interviewed greater than 200 individuals, together with many who knew King intently, just like the singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte. The ebook has additionally drawn consideration for its revelation that King was much less essential of Malcolm X than beforehand thought.
It is a rush transcript. Copy is probably not in its last kind.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Conflict and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We spend the remainder of the hour with the creator of the primary main biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a long time. Jonathan Eig’s King: A Life was printed this month and attracts on unredacted FBI information, in addition to the information of the non-public aide to President Lyndon Johnson, that exhibits how he and others partnered with the FBI’s surveillance of King and efforts to destroy him, led by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Eig wrote in a New York Occasions opinion essay concerning the ebook that the paperwork reveal how, quote, “Johnson was extra of an antagonist to King and a conspirator with Hoover than he has been portrayed. By personalizing the F.B.I.’s assault on King, Individuals cling to a view of historical past that isolates a couple of unhealthy actors who opposed the civil rights motion — together with Hoover, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama and the Birmingham lawman Bull Connor. They thus fail to acknowledge the institutionalized, well-organized resistance to alter in our society.” That’s Jonathan Eig, creator of King: A Life, for which he additionally interviewed greater than 200 individuals, together with many who knew King intently, just like the singer, actor and activist, the late, nice Harry Belafonte.
The ebook has additionally drawn consideration for its revelation that King was much less essential of Malcolm X than beforehand thought. Eig discovered the unique transcript of an interview King did with Alex Haley, who’s the creator who collaborated with Malcolm X on his autobiography. The transcript exhibits how Haley misquoted and even made up a part of King’s response. Actually, King by no means mentioned, “Malcolm has executed himself or our individuals an awesome disservice.” And King’s remark about “fiery, demagogic oratory” was not associated to Malcolm X.
To speak about all of this, we’re joined in Chicago by Jonathan Eig.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jonathan. That is an epic work. Congratulations on years of analysis and writing. Why don’t we start the place I left off, on this exposé round what Martin Luther King actually considered Malcolm X? Discuss concerning the significance of how Alex Haley formed the narrative for thus many a long time, and who Haley was.
JONATHAN EIG: Alex Haley was one of many best-known African American journalists of his period. He wrote for lots of mainstream white publications, like Reader’s Digest and Playboy. And the Playboy interview that he did with Martin Luther King was the longest interview — the longest printed interview that King ever gave. So it had important affect. It reached loads of white readers who weren’t in any other case going to be uncovered to such a protracted interview with King.
And due to the feedback that King made, or supposedly made, about Malcolm X, it’s been handed down for many years, for generations, that that is what King truly considered Malcolm X. And it was, as you identified within the introduction, largely fabricated.
AMY GOODMAN: And speak about the way you discovered this out and what you perceive King actually considered Malcolm X. They really solely met in individual as soon as — proper? — in Washington, D.C., though Malcolm X did go to Selma. And speak about what he mentioned to Martin Luther King’s spouse, Coretta Scott King.
JONATHAN EIG: Sure, the boys solely met as soon as, and Malcolm did go — he was talking in Tuskegee, and a few college students informed him that King was in Selma, they might drive there and be there inside hours. So Malcolm X acquired within the automotive, drove to Selma, didn’t get to fulfill King, as a result of he was in jail, however he did sit subsequent to Coretta Scott King at a church rally and mentioned to Coretta, “Let your husband know that I’m right here, that I assist him, and that possibly it’s useful to him, in a manner — if all people is aware of that I’m the choice, maybe they’ll be extra prepared to hearken to Dr. King.”
And that’s the reality. The reality of the connection, as James Baldwin wrote, is that by the point of their deaths, they had been just about indistinguishable of their philosophies. That could be a little bit of an exaggeration, however they had been positively shifting towards one another. And this quote in Playboy actually did a disservice. It actually misrepresented their relationship.
One of many issues that I do any time I discover a actually good interview with a topic of a ebook that I’m engaged on is I’ll go to the archives and attempt to discover the unique tapes or the unique transcript of that interview to see what was ignored. And that’s actually all I used to be doing after I went in search of the Alex Haley transcript of his interview with Martin Luther King. I wished to see what acquired ignored, as a result of, you understand, you’ll be able to by no means actually publish the complete interview. It’s important to select the most effective elements.
However as I used to be studying by way of the transcript, I used to be shocked to find that entire elements of it had been moved round in order that solutions to questions had been modified of their which means, and a few sections had been fully fabricated. And King by no means mentioned that he thought Malcolm’s fiery oratory was doing a disservice to the Black neighborhood. Actually, he mentioned that concerning the Nation of Islam, however not particularly about Malcolm.
And when requested about Malcolm, King truly expressed nice open-mindedness. He mentioned, “I don’t agree when Malcolm X requires violence, however I’m additionally not so boastful to suppose that I’ve all of the solutions.” And he’s suggesting on this interview, the half that wasn’t printed, that he’s open-minded to studying extra and to speaking extra to Malcolm. That’s one of many nice issues about King. He was at all times occupied with listening to the individuals who disagreed with him.
AMY GOODMAN: So, should you can speak about that form of analysis that you simply did, Jonathan, and why you selected to do a profile of King, the — not only a profile, an epic work? Discuss concerning the different biographies that you simply wrote and the way that introduced you to King at this essential second, when, what, Harry Belafonte simply died. He was 96. Dr. King, after all, would have been in his nineties, and what which means about these round him who knew him greatest.
JONATHAN EIG: About 10 years in the past, after I was engaged on my Muhammad Ali biography, I used to be interviewing individuals who knew Ali and in addition knew Martin Luther King, and I used to be asking them concerning the couple of events when King and Ali met. I used to be talking to individuals like Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, Andrew Younger, Reverend Jesse Jackson. And as I started speaking to them, I discovered myself simply asking loads of questions on King. I used to be curious what he was like.
And that’s when it occurred to me that within the final, you understand, 40, 50 years or so, we’ve turned King into form of a two-dimensional determine. And I feel particularly with the appearance of the nationwide vacation, he’s turn into form of a Hallmark card, and we’ve watered down his imaginative and prescient. And these males had been telling me that they thought-about King a radical, as radical as Malcolm X in some ways. And the general public picture of him has modified a lot that I felt like this was an awesome alternative to write down a ebook that might right that picture, and in addition a possibility to write down that ebook whereas so many individuals who knew King had been nonetheless alive.
And I traveled the nation during the last six years interviewing of us not similar to those I discussed, but additionally Juanita Abernathy, Dr. June Dobbs Butts, Reverend James Lawson, Reverend Bernard Lafayette, and asking them, “What was it prefer to be round King? What was his message? How have we overpassed the true man?” I wished to write down a extra intimate portrait. And it had been, you understand, 35 years for the reason that final King biography had been printed, so I felt like this was an pressing mission, actually.
AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan, I wish to get to his early years, the descendant of enslaved individuals, however I additionally wish to speak about what you found within the final years from declassified FBI paperwork, and in addition this private secretary of Lyndon Baines Johnson stored her personal archive, and the way that wasn’t launched till just lately. I wish to speak about FBI surveillance, from the Kennedys to Johnson, and the way it wasn’t simply surveillance however proactive trying to drive Dr. Martin Luther King to suicide.
JONATHAN EIG: It started with an authorization by Robert F. Kennedy to start to surveil King. They started by placing wiretaps on a few of his associates’ telephones. Ultimately, they began wiretapping King’s house and workplace telephones. After which in addition they started to place listening units in his lodge rooms.
Initially, the rationale for that was that they had been involved he was consorting, associating with communists and former communists. When it turned clear that King was not in any respect in communists, and the communists weren’t influencing the civil rights motion in any manner that moved them towards communist beliefs, they acknowledged that, however by then that they had turn into obsessed together with his private life and making an attempt to catch him in affairs with different girls, aside from Coretta, his spouse.
So, it turned, actually, a private vendetta, fueled partially by the racism within the FBI, fueled partially by the insecurities of J. Edgar Hoover, who resisted and actually raged when King criticized the FBI for being racist. After which it turned actually the non-public obsession of individuals like Hoover and LBJ, who I feel simply had a prurient curiosity in holding tabs on King’s private life.
AMY GOODMAN: And speak about how they weaponized that. I imply, you speak extensively about Martin Luther King coping with melancholy. And I feel this additionally goes to demystifying an icon. It doesn’t take away any of his energy, however for people who find themselves — who surprise in the event that they themselves may make a distinction on the earth, that suffer from melancholy. From his early form of halfhearted makes an attempt at suicide as a toddler to being institutionalized and but undertaking a lot, take us on that trajectory.
JONATHAN EIG: I feel it’s actually vital for us to acknowledge that our heroes have flaws, and if we count on our heroes to be excellent, no one will ever rise to the event. No one will even attempt.
And King was deeply flawed. As you talked about, he tried suicide twice as a teen, leaping from a second-story window of his house when he was upset about, first, an harm suffered by his grandmother after which, later, by her loss of life. And when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, he was hospitalized on the time for what he referred to as nervousness, however for what Coretta described as melancholy. He was hospitalized quite a few instances all through his life as a result of the strain had simply gotten to him so badly.
And, after all, the FBI knew about this and tried to weaponize it, as you say. They took his private life, reported on it, distributed that data not solely to the president of the US, however to members of Congress and to members of the media, hoping that any individual would go public with it and destroy his marriage, destroy his fame and, primarily, destroy the civil rights motion. At one level, they even deliberate for a alternative for King, selecting Samuel Pierce to turn into the subsequent chief of the civil rights motion as soon as they managed to get King out of the way in which.
So this was a deliberate, prolonged and actually mean-spirited marketing campaign, pushed not simply by their worry of King, not simply by their worry of a race — of a Black man rising to prominence, however actually pushed by a worry of shedding the ability as was loved by white individuals primarily at the moment. They wished to take care of the present energy construction.
AMY GOODMAN: And whenever you speak about distributing the surveillance transcripts, after they had been listening to him in lodge rooms, after they had been listening to him on the phone, speak concerning the function of the media, in a single sense being referred to as heroic — for instance, The New York Occasions for returning these paperwork with out reporting on them — however not exposing the truth that he was being surveilled and wiretapped.
JONATHAN EIG: This is likely one of the nice mysteries of the civil rights period. Why didn’t anyone report on the truth that our authorities, the FBI, was in actual fact surveilling non-public residents — not simply King, however a lot of his closest associates — and, as we later found in 1971, when a few of these FBI paperwork had been stolen in a break-in, that the FBI was conducting an enormous marketing campaign of making an attempt to disrupt protest leaders, making an attempt to disrupt activists who had been engaged in peacefully, for probably the most half, making an attempt to convey change and increase the system of democracy?
However the true fascinating a part of the story to me is that dozens of reporters had been being leaked these paperwork, dozens of reporters had been being beseeched by the FBI to publish the information of King’s private life, to write down about his sexual affairs, they usually patted themselves on the again for not reporting that story, defending King’s privateness, however none of them picked up what ought to have been the a lot greater story, which was the surveillance within the first place. Why was our authorities doing this? Why was it engaged in this sort of conduct towards a non-public citizen, in actual fact, one in every of our nice ethical leaders?
AMY GOODMAN: And speak about how that went again to the Kennedys, each President John F. Kennedy and Legal professional Common Robert Kennedy. What was their relationship with King — on the one hand, calling Coretta, being deeply involved about him being jailed, and, however, authorizing the wiretaps?
JONATHAN EIG: Martin Luther King didn’t endorse JFK, however lots of people felt like his tacit endorsement, his phrases of approval for Kennedy, helped Kennedy swing the election. And after that, King was actually upset that Kennedy didn’t transfer extra rapidly to enact civil rights laws. He felt like Kennedy was hemming and hawing, enjoying politics, making an attempt to preserve — to protect white votes within the South, not desirous to take any probabilities. So, the connection was an advanced one.
On the similar time, it was the Kennedys who licensed the FBI to start these wiretaps. The Kennedys had been, at first, actually involved that King’s connections to communists may need damaging political results, that if the information acquired out that King had these former Communist Occasion members and maybe some present Communist Occasion members in his circle, that it could harm any probabilities that they had of passing civil rights laws. And the Kennedys warned King and requested him to eliminate these individuals. King ended up eliminating one in every of them, however holding his relationship with the opposite, as a result of he actually believed that this was man and that his former ties to communists had been irrelevant. So, King was not enjoying politics. He was doing what he believed was the best factor morally, standing by a good friend and an vital ally. And the Kennedys didn’t appear to know that. They didn’t perceive why he wasn’t extra involved with the political optics.
AMY GOODMAN: After which, occurring to Johnson, the truth that he understood he needed to preserve these memos of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover secret, who was sending as many as one every week, detailing Dr. King’s non-public life — who is aware of? — full of information, full of lies, and placing this by way of an entire totally different channel with the non-public secretary of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and when these paperwork got here out, Jonathan?
JONATHAN EIG: Simply final 12 months, actually, throughout the final 12 months, 12 months and a half. I petitioned the LBJ Library to open up the information of Mildred Stegall, who was LBJ’s private secretary, as a result of we’ve recognized for a very long time that Johnson stored his most vital papers in Mildred Stegall’s protected. He stored his non-public enterprise papers there. He stored recordings that he made, unbeknownst to others that he was recording all of the cellphone calls from the Oval Workplace. He stored the tapes in Mildred Stegall’s protected. So I requested them to verify to see if there have been any FBI information within the protected, in Mildred Stegall’s information.
And, in actual fact, there have been a whole bunch of pages of paperwork immediately from J. Edgar Hoover to the White Home with probably the most private particulars, actually shockingly odd in how private they had been, actually gossipy issues that might not have borne any, actually, significance in the case of nationwide safety. However it simply appeared that LBJ and Hoover loved gossiping concerning the private particulars of King’s life, and in addition about any form of criticism that King may need had for LBJ. It was raised to the extent of excessive nationwide significance, no less than in Hoover’s thoughts, if King mentioned one thing essential of LBJ. And LBJ, by this time, was changing into consumed with the Vietnam Conflict. It was giving him nightmares, actually inflicting him nightmares. And when King started to talk out extra aggressively towards the warfare, LBJ took this very personally. So, LBJ appeared to affix within the vendetta with Hoover on this assault on King.
And I feel it’s vital to acknowledge that that has penalties. You realize, when LBJ took workplace, he seen King as one in every of his most vital allies. They labored collectively to move among the best laws on this nation’s historical past — the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. And I feel their partnership was a tremendous one, possibly the best partnership we’ve ever seen between a president and an activist. However J. Edgar Hoover helped to actually unfold most cancers into that relationship. And you’ll hear it of their cellphone calls. You possibly can hear how he goes from calling him “Martin” in these early calls to referring to him as “Dr. King” and “Reverend King” and actually shedding the heat of that relationship, and to the purpose the place they’re actually antagonists. LBJ turns into an antagonist of Dr. King’s.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I’m going to undergo a chronology. After FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover referred to as Dr. King, quote, “probably the most infamous liar within the nation,” a reporter requested Dr. King for his response.
REPORTER: Dr. King, what’s your response to the costs made by J. Edgar Hoover?
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Effectively, I used to be fairly shocked and shocked to study of this assertion from Mr. Hoover questioning my integrity. And really frankly, I don’t perceive what motivated the assertion.
AMY GOODMAN: Not lengthy after J. Edgar Hoover referred to as Dr. King “probably the most infamous liar within the nation,” on November 18th, 1964, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. That is an excerpt from his acceptance speech on December tenth, 1964.
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I need to ask why this prize is awarded to a motion which is beleaguered and dedicated to unrelenting wrestle, and to a motion which has not but received the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize. After contemplation, I conclude that this award, which I obtain on behalf of that motion, is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the reply to the essential political and ethical questions of our time, the necessity for man to beat oppression and violence with out resorting to violence and oppression.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dr. King in his Nobel acceptance speech. There’s a lot to speak about right here, Jonathan Eig. As you mentioned, when he realized he was going to win the Nobel Peace Prize — that announcement is available in October — he was hospitalized for melancholy. Speak about his response on the time. After which, that quote of J. Edgar Hoover, who knew all of this was occurring, was proper after the announcement, and understanding that Dr. King had been hospitalized. And the response of Dr. King to listening to Hoover name him this?
JONATHAN EIG: I feel J. Edgar Hoover was livid that Dr. King had received the Nobel Prize. He took it personally. You realize, right here’s this Black man, this man who’s attacking American values, as J. Edgar Hoover sees them. J. Edgar Hoover is deeply dedicated to his model of white Christian nationalism. And for King to win the Nobel Prize was a private affront to him, I feel. And he redoubled his efforts at that time to attempt to harm King, to attempt to destroy his fame.
On the similar time, the Nobel Peace Prize turns into a calling to Dr. King and to Coretta Scott King, each of whom say, “Now we have a higher duty than ever now. And that duty consists of not limiting our work to the battle within the South, not limiting our work to integration, however to have a look at racism all through the nation, to have a look at poverty, to have a look at militarism, to have a look at materialism.” And he actually begins to increase not simply his imaginative and prescient, however his activism, his work. He begins taking up extra fights within the North. He begins talking out extra towards the Vietnam Conflict. And he broadens his function and turns into, you understand, a a lot higher ethical chief.
And this, in flip, additional infuriates J. Edgar Hoover. And we see the marketing campaign to destroy King simply rising and rising. So, what we have now right here, sadly, because the Nobel Prize helps to crystallize, we acknowledge that J. Edgar Hoover is definitely one of many few individuals who understands that Martin Luther King is presenting an enormous risk. He’s calling for a brand new form of American democracy. He’s calling for a imaginative and prescient of America that will get us previous a few of our materialistic, militaristic habits and brings in a brand new daybreak of a brand new day. And that could be a big affront and a risk to J. Edgar Hoover in the way in which he sees the world.
AMY GOODMAN: I wish to go to that deal with, Dr. Martin Luther King, April 4th, 1967, a 12 months to the day earlier than he was assassinated in Memphis, the speech he gave at Riverside Church explaining why he opposed the Conflict in Vietnam.
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: As I’ve walked among the many determined, rejected and offended younger males, I’ve informed them that Molotov cocktails and rifles wouldn’t clear up their issues. I’ve tried to supply them my deepest compassion whereas sustaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully by way of nonviolent motion. However they ask, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They usually ask if our personal nation wasn’t utilizing huge doses of violence to resolve its issues, to convey concerning the adjustments it wished. Their questions hit house. And I knew that I may by no means once more elevate my voice towards the violence of the oppressed within the ghettos with out having first spoken clearly to the best purveyor of violence on the earth as we speak: my very own authorities.
AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Eig, the importance of what he mentioned, going past civil rights in the US, the assault on him not solely by those that opposed him, however by his closest allies, saying he was risking your entire civil rights venture? After which the company media. You had Life journal calling the speech “demagogic slander sounding like a script for Radio Hanoi,” The Washington Publish saying King, quote, “diminished his usefulness to his trigger, his nation, his individuals.” Speak about how King each was deeply affected by this, however doubled down as a result of he mentioned it was his ethical obligation.
JONATHAN EIG: To me, that is my favourite King speech, as a result of it summarizes his whole life and the whole lot he’s believed in from childhood. It is a man — keep in mind, he got here to fame at age 26, main the Montgomery bus boycott; he was assassinated at age 39 — a really brief profession, 12-and-a-half years of activism. However it all started with the teachings he realized earlier than he knew easy methods to learn, classes he realized from the Bible, that mentioned all males are created equal, that mentioned warfare is mistaken, warfare is a sin towards God, and that every one males are brothers. And he sums all of it up on this speech on April 4th, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York, sums it up so fantastically, actually crystallizes the whole lot he’s been saying all his life, and doubles down at a time when he may have backed off, when he may have stepped apart, when he was beneath assault from the left and the best. He was not conservative sufficient for the conservatives; he was liberal sufficient for the liberals. He was getting it from all sides.
He actually simply retains marching, retains going ahead, and plans for this Poor Individuals’s Marketing campaign in Washington, the place he’s going to mainly occupy Washington, D.C., till the federal government agrees to basic financial reforms and basic adjustments in how we feed and take care of the poor, basic adjustments in how we view our militarism. And he’s battered for this. The New York Occasions, Life journal, The Washington Publish, all of them assault him. And we have now transcripts of his cellphone calls. We will even hear him on the cellphone with one in every of his greatest pals and closest advisers, who says to him, “That speech was a mistake. It’s going to value us funding within the North. We’re going to lose our liberal supporters. You’re going to haven’t any relationship anymore with LBJ.” And it’s painful to learn these transcripts. You possibly can simply — your coronary heart goes out to King, as a result of he has to elucidate to one in every of his closest pals, “Don’t you perceive me? Don’t you understand what I’ve been saying all these years? It’s not out of pragmatism. I could have been mistaken politically, however I used to be not mistaken morally.”
And that’s King. That’s what makes him a hero for our day, as a result of he by no means backed down. He by no means gave up on his true beliefs. And he continued to insist, even when it could have been so much simpler for him to step again.
AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Eig, I wish to thanks for this interview and hope you’ll be able to keep for us to do a post-show interview, and we’ll put up it at democracynow.org, to speak about King’s early years and the allies he was pressured to sever ties with for a time, like Bayard Rustin. We’re speaking to Jonathan Eig, longtime journalist, creator. His new biography is out, King: A Life.
That does it for our present. Go to democracynow.org for all transcripts of present. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for becoming a member of us.
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