Posted on April 25, 2023

Who Was the Real Martin Luther King, Jr.?

David J. Garrow, The Spectator, April 22, 2023

Jonathan Eig’s new King: A Life (KAL) is the first comprehensive biography of the black civil rights hero to appear in more than thirty years, and it will succeed my own Bearing the Cross (BTC), published in 1986, as the standard account.


Forty years ago, I took to heart something the civil rights icon Miss Ella Baker said just two months after King’s 1968 assassination: “The movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement.” Thus BTC begins with the 1955 arrest of Mrs. Rosa Parks, which kicked off the Montgomery bus boycott, not with King’s birth, and devotes only twenty pages (of 625) to King’s twenty-six years before his elevation as the Montgomery protesters’ spokesman.

Eig in contrast has structured a far more traditional biography, devoting 135 pages, almost a quarter of his text, to King’s pre-boycott roots and life story. {snip}


The second major contrast between KAL and BTC is the vastly greater attention Eig gives to Coretta Scott King. {snip}

The third great difference between KAL and BTC is by far the most consequential. When I first met Dorothy Cotton in September 1979, I already knew that those closest to King spoke privately of Cotton as his “real wife,” and while Cotton, a close aide in King’s civil rights work, was entirely eager to talk about King, she likewise made it crystal clear that she did not want to be characterized as his consort rather than his colleague. Thus in both The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1981) and in BTC, and in all my subsequent writings up through the time of Cotton’s 2018 death, I never explicitly named her as King’s most important life partner in the years after 1963 — nor did any other King scholars.

Cotton was a warm, enthusiastic, outgoing woman — the word “bubbly” comes to mind, as does the pink chiffon that decorated one of the rooms in her Atlanta home — and anyone who knew both Cotton and Coretta Scott King would not for a moment doubt who someone badly in need of emotionally supportive companionship would choose to spend time with.

Eig’s narrative covering from 1963 to 1968 details again and again, using King’s own office records as well as FBI surveillance reports, how often King stayed with Cotton, especially at a “hideaway” Atlanta apartment rented in the name of an aide, rather than at home with Coretta and the four young children whom she was raising almost singlehandedly. What Coretta endured both during King’s lifetime, and in the immediate aftermath of his horrific assassination, would not have made anyone a happy, upbeat personality, and my own face-to-face conversations with her in the early 1980s made clear that she was a sad, lonely, yet deeply disciplined woman. Eig poignantly quotes from Maya Angelou’s 2006 eulogy of Coretta, in which Angelou, herself a strong black woman, lamented how Coretta had been “destined to become a steel magnolia.”

But Cotton was far from alone in King’s private life. He also carried on a years-long affair with Dolores Evans, the young wife of a California dentist; she gave birth to a daughter, now fifty-seven, at a time when she and her husband were facing off in a Los Angeles divorce court. When writing BTC I was aware of a dozen or so additional King girlfriends — one in Miami, one in San Diego, another in Atlanta, etc. — but the largely unredacted FBI records released by the National Archives in 2018 allow a careful reader to identify many more — in Philadelphia, Chicago, Mount Vernon, New York, etc. — with the sum total of paramours approximating perhaps forty. Even in BTC I acknowledged that King’s behavior was beyond question “compulsive,” and four decades later it’s impossible to review the newly available details of King’s phone calls to multiple women without that word coming to mind.

King’s troubled private life also featured recurring episodes of binge drinking. BTC described how King was abusing alcohol in early 1968, but FBI surveillance and other law enforcement reports — most powerfully an interview with a Las Vegas prostitute following an all-night threesome with King and another woman — allow Eig’s book to show how King had a serious alcohol problem even at the outset of 1964. {snip}


Psychiatry professor Nassir Ghaemi will detail in a forthcoming book how he has perceptively, and pioneeringly, concluded that King suffered from what was then called manic depression (now more often known as bipolar disorder). To one close friend, King justified his endless philandering as a form of “anxiety reduction,” as BTC reported, but it caused him endless difficulties on multiple fronts {snip}


King knew he was being wiretapped and bugged — indeed, President John F. Kennedy had told him as much — yet he was both reckless and defiant in refusing to change his ways because squads of FBI agents were recording him at home, at the office and at dozens of hotels with Evans and other women. {snip}

Only come early 2027 will the court seal covering the FBI’s full collection of wiretap transcripts and hotel recordings expire, but until that time, and almost certainly thereafter, Jonathan Eig’s King will remain the best-informed account of this deeply courageous, yet also deeply flawed, life.