Regarding the societal ills such as racism and prejudice that have been detrimental to humanity before and after the Civil Rights Movement, Maya Angelou said, “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.”
The 1960s was an era of change from music to fashion to politics. It was also an era of protest of discrimination, police brutality, and other societal ills, a rebellion against the ideas that people of color deserved only the bare minimum.
Jonathan Eig captures that volatile era in his latest book, King: A Life, which has been nominated for a National Book Award. The comprehensive biography chronicles the life of the late Civil Rights leader from his boyhood until his death in Memphis in 1968.
Eig says his life motivated him to show understanding and open-mindedness to different perspectives and backgrounds. “I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1964, but I grew up in suburban Monsey, New York,” he said.
“My parents taught me how be humble. They taught me the importance of listening before speaking, a lesson that has helped me navigate throughout life in a very perceptive manner, so to speak. Moreover, I’ve discovered a love for writing because it allowed me to express only what I really wanted to convey in the manner I wanted to say it,” he recalls.
He credits Leon Forrest and Joseph Epstein for shaping his education at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and says they guided him in the right direction, in both life and in journalism.
Just as Dr. King was inspired to stand and dispute for righteousness, Jonathan Eig was impelled to read, research, and tabulate the life of a man who was motivated to create revolution for the cynical and voiceless.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was more than a civil right activist. Among many other influential civil rights protestors, he was not afraid to find solutions to various issues as well as fight for justice for all– he was a man who oftentimes prayed for the best, but expected the worst every time he and his close friends, relatives, and affiliates fought and marched for equal rights around the globe.
The Civil Rights’ Movement sought fair housing, financial, and educational rights that would help people of color to live a better existence for themselves and their families. According to Eig, the Civil Rights Movement was born of both a coincidence and a desire to create change.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not want to become a civil rights leader, because he was aware of the risks that involved fighting for equal rights for all,” he said, adding: “[King] faced constant death threats. His home was blown-up, and he was stabbed in the chest. He woke up every day, knowing that he might be killed, yet he persisted, taking on more challenges and accountabilities. Although Dr. King was not perfect, he never stopped trying to live up the Bible’s commandments and the example he saw in the life of Jesus.”
During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, King and his family migrated from Atlanta, Georgia to Chicago, Illinois, to an apartment at 1550 South Hamlin in North Lawndale. The time the King family spent on the West Side of Chicago was not what they’d expected.
Eig says, “King came to Chicago in 1966 to show the world that the South wasn’t the only place where segregation and discrimination persisted. He and Coretta moved into an apartment in North Lawndale and stayed there at least three days a week most weeks. While in Chicago, King worked with community organizers to lead a series of protests, including marches through Gage Park and Marquette Park, where King was greeted by white counter-protesters, who shouted racial epithets and threw rocks and bricks at King.”
“After these marches, King said that he was stunned by Chicago’s racism. Nevertheless, he continued to fight, and to push the city to confront its patterns of segregation and discrimination. He faced bitter opposition not only from rock-throwing racists in places like Gage Park but also from Mayor Daley,” Eig states, describing the suffering that King and his family endured in Chicago.
He adds, “King presented Daley with a list of demands that included a program to end housing discrimination. Some people say King failed in Chicago, winning nothing but empty promises. Truthfully, I think the city missed an opportunity to change. And I think King’s frustrations in Chicago made him more determined to speak out and fight against inequities in American capitalism. [He] began to say that fighting segregation wasn’t enough. The Chicago protest, he said, would be the “first step in a thousand-mile journey.”
Eig points out that many more people contributed to the cause for which King and others, such as Rosa Parks, Medgar Evans and Malcolm X became famous.
He emphasizes, “There are countless people who have made an impact on humanity and received little credit. Some of them sacrificed their lives for those who were too frightened to stand against inequality, discrimination, and racism. But since we’re talking about King and those who were involved in the Civil Rights Crusade, I would like to point out that much of the most important grassroots work was done by Black women who worked throughout the South to organize protests and register voters. They were just as brave and vulnerable to violence as King, yet they did their work without public acclamation. JoAnn Robinson, Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Diane Nash, and Gloria Richardson are just a few of the women who deserve wider recognition for their contribution to crusade and other events which led to the movement and more.”
Racism and other factors may have broken people of color’s hopes of establishing a better life for themselves and their families, but their circumstances never stopped them from fighting for what was rightfully theirs.
“Preserving a rapport with God is what helped the protestors to remain strong during the crusade,” Eig concludes. “Without God, they wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the things that they were called to do.”