The Finkelstein Memorial Library hosted a Zoom book discussion on the New York Times bestseller, “King: A Life,” with author Jonathan Eig and Mondaire Jones, a former Democratic representative and Congressional candidate for New York’s 17th district, last Thursday.
Led by Finkelstein’s head of marketing and communications, Maria Vanessa Cipolla, and co-sponsored by Spring Valley’s Martin Luther King Multi-Purpose Center, Eig shared with the audience how he wanted to write “ a more intimate portrait of King.”
“I wanted readers to encounter a more fully human Martin Luther King Jr: one with flaws, with doubts, with fears, one who’s even more inspiring because of his imperfection,” Eig wrote in an email. “In addition to new FBI files, I found thousands of other new documents, including interviews with his wife and father that had never been published.”
The first major biography in decades, Eig was fortunate to interview people who personally knew King, including Harry Belafonte, John Lewis, Andrew Young, Dick Gregory, Juanita Abernathy and Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Eig delves deeper beyond what the media at the time managed to capture of King, including his personal mental health struggles.
“You can see how much this pressure gets to him and how it wears him down, and yet, he never quits,” he said in the Q and A.
He also recounted with viewers of a conversation he had with Jackson, who addressed that he wasn’t in favor of including King’s infidelity in the book.
“He read the book and he said, ‘I don’t think you needed to include the sex in there,’ and I said, ‘Respectfully, Rev., I think I did because, first of all, people are flawed and we need to acknowledge that. If we expect all our heroes to be perfect, we can’t have any heroes,'” he said.
The book mentions how the FBI weaponized King’s personal life as they tried to destroy the marriage between him and Coretta Scott King by taking recordings of him in hotel rooms he stayed at with women.
They sent these tapes not only to the media, who filtered this side of King, but Coretta as well.
“Coretta is another character who has never really gotten her due, and she’s often just portrayed as the courageous woman behind the man, but we forget that she was a serious activist in her own right,” he said. “She plays a really important part in his development. She’s always pushing him to be more aggressive to think beyond just voting rights or segregation, think what else they could do as a couple.”
She was involved in several student movements at Boston University, where she met King.
What Eig hopes readers get out of the book is to see him as a man, one who was flawed and relatable, but who was also radical.
“One of the effects of making him a national holiday is that we end up watering down his message. We teach kids in first grade about ‘I Have a Dream,’ how it’s about the content of our character and, you know, being non-violent, but we don’t get much beyond that,” Eig said.
Eig explained how in the first half of the ‘I Had A Dream’ speech, King covers subjects that are discussed today, including police brutality and reparations.
King also talked about the need for discussions on human rights, “radical restructuring of the economy” and conversations on how the capitalist system doesn’t work for everyone.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Monsey, Eig also touched on what it was like growing up in Rockland County in the late 60s and 70s, a time when America was changing and how the civil rights movement was, as Eig described, “in the rear view mirror, but still being wrestled with in really important ways.”
“I think it’s really important that I went to integrated schools and I can remember the first day of kindergarten, seeing buses pulling up. Some of them had Black kids on it and some of them had White kids on them. There weren’t really Black kids living in the immediate neighborhood where I lived and I think that was an important part of my education,” Eig shared. “You couldn’t really help but think about race and race relations, and what was left undone from the civil rights movement.”
After serving as editor of the school paper at both Spring Valley Junior High and Spring Valley High School, he began his writing career at 16 at “The Journal News” covering Rockland County.
Jones, a Nyack native who grew up in Spring Valley, also touched on his thoughts on the book, and reflected how history appears to repeat itself.
Jones was candid with viewers, recounting a conversation he had with friends about “a certain debate” that happened the night before, referring to the first Republican primary debate of the 2024 presidential race.
“I just reminded people that the Civil Rights Movement was not that long ago. Many of the people who opposed civil rights are very much alive today. They passed on some of their bad habits and ways of thinking onto their children,” he said. “I think the story of this country is one of backlash to racial progress whether it was backlash to the original reconstruction following the civil war or backlash to the election of our nation’s first Black president and to the gains of the civil rights era, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
When asked by a viewer why progress is so difficult Jones said that “progress is not linear.”
“I said this on the floor of the House, the morning after voting rights legislation that I co-authored was filibustered in the Senate in January of 2022, ‘like something seen out of the civil rights era,’” he said. “The trajectory, the arch, as MLK would say, ultimately has to be bent towards justice, but that doesn’t mean that it will happen overnight.”
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