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Jonathan Eig's new biography examines the life of Martin Luther King Jr.


The life of Martin Luther King is one of the most famous in American history. But in that life, one thing is easy to overlook - how young he was. King became a nationally known civil rights leader in his mid-20s. When he gave the famous "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington in 1963, he was in his early 30s, though his voice suggested the gravity of long experience.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history.

INSKEEP: We know that cadence, the drawn-out words precisely pronounced, the pauses between each phrase. The biographer, Jonathan Eig, found a recording of a voice with a similar cadence, one that King grew up hearing. It's an oral history of his father, Martin Luther King Sr.


MARTIN LUTHER KING SR: I was born in the midst of segregation at its height. And I was able to see many injustices leveled upon my people.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Eig spends a lot of time on Martin Luther King Jr's youth in his biography "King: A Life." We learned that King's father grew up with a different name, Michael King, and adopted the name that his son later made famous. It was part of the father's self-invention after growing up as a sharecropper's son.

JONATHAN EIG: He's working on a farm. His father and mother are stuck in poverty, unable to escape the white landowner in Stockbridge, Ga., and Martin Luther King Sr., at age 12, walks barefoot out of Stockbridge toward Atlanta to make himself a new life and begins teaching himself to read and write, setting the groundwork to become a preacher, to become an activist and to raise one of the greatest activists in American history.

INSKEEP: What did it mean that Martin Luther King Jr., unlike his father, was able to grow up in relative prosperity in a prosperous part of Black Atlanta?

EIG: One of Dr. King's friends told me that he thought Martin Luther King's - was really exceptional in that he did not seem to be bruised by racism in quite the same way that so many of his peers were. He had a little bit of a buffer, growing up on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, growing up in this preacher's family. You know, he had a bicycle. He had a pet. He had a dog. He lived in relative comfort. And because his family was so prominent, he was able to see a lot more opportunity than maybe some other people who were going to school with him had at that time.

INSKEEP: What were some aspects of the father's character that deeply affected the son?

EIG: Well, he was a very difficult man. He was very stubborn. He was violent at times. He - you know, he used the belt to spank his children in public sometimes, out in the yard. And if one of the neighbors came by and yelled, he'd spank that kid, too. So he was a difficult man who set very high standards for all three kids. And he also really was overly protective. And when Martin Luther King Jr. became the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott and his home was bombed, Martin Luther King Sr. was there the next day saying, you're coming home with me. I'm not letting you stay here in this kind of - risk your life in this danger. And it was very difficult for Martin Luther King Jr. to stand up to his father. He struggled with that all his life.

INSKEEP: Is that something that affected his approach to people later on?

EIG: It really did. One of the interesting things about King is that he's a protest leader who really does not like conflict. He is always going out of his way to avoid conflict with people who are his elders, who seem to be his superiors in some ways, people like Roy Wilkins at the NAACP or A. Philip Randolph. And then that plays out, too, when he becomes a negotiator with presidents. And he really doesn't like conflict. He has to push himself really out of his comfort zone to argue, to debate, to really challenge some of the leaders of this country.

INSKEEP: I'm amazed at the amount of education this young man sought at such a young age, given that his father had had virtually none.

EIG: Right. He skipped grades and went to Morehouse, you know, two or three years younger than most of his classmates, then went to seminary and went to get his doctorate at Boston University, always the youngest in his class. And his father really was against it. His father thought to be a preacher, you don't need all that education. Morehouse was enough, Daddy King thought. But Martin always wanted to exceed his father. He wasn't comfortable with the way his father preached. He didn't like the emotionalism. He didn't like that country-style preaching. And young Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to show that he could go beyond, just like most of us want to go beyond our - you know, our parents. We want to see, you know, how far we can go beyond what they've established for us, right?

INSKEEP: How did King Jr. emerge as the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955?

EIG: This is one of the miraculous moments in American history where the right person happens to be in the right place at the right time. And Martin Luther King Jr. was not looking to become a leader. He was looking to get his church in shape and perhaps move on to a bigger church or to a job as a college professor. But when the Montgomery bus boycott began, they were looking for somebody who could serve as the spokesman. He wasn't even asked to become the president yet. He was just asked to be the spokesman because he hadn't been around long enough to make enemies. So people thought he might be able to unite the community, and they already knew that he was a terrific speaker. So King steps up to the podium at Holt Street Baptist Church on December 5, 1955, and gives this incredible speech. And it's the first time that most people in Montgomery have heard him. And suddenly he inspires them in a way that is just profound. They're ready to walk. They're ready to march. They're ready to do it as long as required.


KING JR: If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong.


KING JR: If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong.


INSKEEP: I'm just thinking of the pressure this person then faced in the years that followed - seen as the representative in some ways of an entire race, under FBI investigation, under threat, under violent threat, repeatedly arrested, finally assassinated. What, if anything, in his youth prepared him to withstand that pressure?

EIG: The Bible. I'd have to say it was his faith in God. And he said it over and over again, that God called on him to do this, that called on all of us to live up to the words of the teachings in the Bible, that we're here to serve God. We're here to try to make the world a better place, and it's not about ourselves. And that's not to say he didn't feel the pressure. He was hospitalized for depression numerous times. And he suffered. He knew that his own government was out to destroy him. They were tapping his phones. They were listening to his conversations in hotel rooms. He still did the work, and he still doubled down. He never backed off of his convictions. He stuck to what he believed in and was willing to risk everything for it.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Eig is the author of the new biography "King: A Life." Thanks so much.

EIG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.