Gerald Early and Jonathan Eig Chat About Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, and the Risky Art of Nonfiction

Author Jonathan Eig, winner of the 2018 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing for his book Ali: A Life, with Gerald Early, Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in the Department of English at Washington University in St. Louis, and also editor of The Common Reader.

These two were meant to meet. Both interested in boxing, race, jazz, politics, culture. Both consulted frequently by Ken Burns for his documentaries. Both hailed for their ability to make recent American history read like a novel. So when the acclaimed biographer Jonathan Eig brought his daughter to tour Washington University last week, he made sure they would visit Gerald Early’s class on black conservatism. The two men met for coffee the day before—Eig’s daughter hitting a different Starbucks with a friend—and they wound up talking about character, empathy, and paradox: Muhammad Ali as a rebel who craved love; Martin Luther King as a radical whose image has been stolen by conservatives.

An award-winning journalist, Eig soon switched to biography, writing Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, followed by biographies of Jackie Robinson, Al Capone, and most recently, Muhammad Ali. Ali: A Life was named best book of the year by Sports Illustrated and one of the ten best nonfiction books of the year by The Wall Street Journal. In her review for The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates recommended as Ali a “richly researched, sympathetic yet unsparing portrait of a controversial figure for whom the personal and the political dramatically fused.”

Calling Eig “a master storyteller,” Ken Burns and asked him to consult on a documentary on Ali. Now Eig is in the middle of an even more political biography, one he suspects will be the most important book he ever writes. His subject? Martin Luther King Jr.


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Gerald Early: I always thought there was a need for the kind of book you wrote about Ali, a really definitive biography.


Jonathan Eig: It was hard. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it was really fun. They are all such great characters, and they are still alive. I took my kids to Don King’s Christmas party! And dealing with three of Ali’s wives at the same time—it was a blast. Ali goes from being one of the most hated men in America [a black man who became a Muslim, then refused to fight in Vietnam] to being one of the most beloved. He has this ability to just make everybody fall in love with him. Even when he was hated, his charisma was such that you just couldn’t stay mad at him. Even his wives—he would cheat on them and come home with STDs, but they would take him back.


G.E.: He had that confidence even as a kid.


J.E.: Yeah, it does seem to be built into his DNA, this hunger for attention and glory. Some of it probably comes from being in an abusive household—his father being a drunk and physically abusive. Trying to find a way to have power, to have some control, drove him to want to excel in boxing.


G.E.: And people respond to confidence. We see the same thing today with Donald Trump.


J.E.: They have some similarities. The narcissism, the confidence that no matter what they say, it’s right, and even if it’s wrong it’ll become right because they said it. The love of attention, and yet the failure to treat the people closest to them well. But for Ali, what made it work is that he genuinely loved people. He had this warmth. You wanted to be in a room with Ali, and when you were, you felt like you were the most special person in America.


G.E.: Did you meet him?


J.E.: I spent three years trying. I actually brought my five-year-old daughter with me once—it was a totally manipulative move! But he was just too sick to come out of his room. A few months later, [his third wife,] Lonnie called me and said, “He’s feeling better. We’re going to be in Louisville for an event. Just come early, and I’ll introduce you.” I’d been thinking for years about what I would ask him. But I knew he hadn’t done an interview in decades, and I wasn’t going to get one. I leaned in and put my hand on his hand and went right up to his ear and said, “I’m writing this book, and the last word should be yours.” And he didn’t answer. I don’t even know if he knew I was there. It was heartbreaking. Later, Lonnie told me he knew I was there and wanted me to come back and read him the book. She’d always said that no matter what it was, he loved hearing about himself. So I think he would have enjoyed being the subject of such a big fat book.


Ali and the Nation of Islam

J.E.: You’re teaching about black conservatism—talking about what made Ali go from being hated to being popular, I wonder if some of it has to do with this strain of conservatism that runs through his life. He becomes more and more conservative, and as he becomes less political, he becomes more popular. Also, of course, when the Vietnam war becomes less popular, and when he loses in the ring and shows some humility. But do you think there’s a strain of conservatism at work there, too?


G.E.: Sure. You know, the Nation of Islam was always in many respects a conservative organization. They never engaged in the civil rights movement; they were always suspicious of it. Their belief was that Allah was going to descend out of this spaceship and right everything.


J.E.: And give them their own land, their own country, so they didn’t have to play by the rules of the United States.


G.E.: So there was a lot of conservatism in it. When I was a teenager, I hung out with a lot of Black Muslims. I would go to their services, and the women were on one side and the men were on the other, and they would hand me a blazer to wear. There was something about all of that that struck me as wonderful, because it seemed orderly, disciplined. I thought, Oh, these are all good things that black people need to have.


J.E.: And there was a lot of self-reliance. They don’t like the welfare state: “We are going to build our own economy.”


G.E.: Yeah, there was a lot about all of it that seemed utopian, almost. And a lot of what made it appealing was conservative. Some of it was more militant, standing up for blackness, but a lot of it was conservative. In other words, I don’t think it was surprising that Ali made a certain kind of move in the ’70s. And also, once Malcolm X left—and once he was killed—the organization never had another mouthpiece with that kind of political brilliance.


J.E.: Yeah, it seemed like Ali didn’t know what to say anymore, once Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X weren’t whispering in his ear.


G.E.: I don’t think he did. Whatever aspirations the Nation of Islam had to a more subversive ideology, it lost. Malcolm X was the political visionary. They never had anybody with that same brilliance.


J.E.: And Elijah Muhammad was more focused on building the economic structure. Politics wasn’t his thing, and he wasn’t a dynamic speaker.


G.E.: No. I remember listening to a recording and thinking, “This is really boring.”


J.E.: It’s funny, you used the word “discipline” to describe the Nation of Islam, and I think that’s a big part of what appealed to Ali, too. And that connects to the boxing world: Discipline is what allowed him to be better than his father. I wonder if that was part of Elijah Muhammad’s message, too. It made Ali feel stronger.


G.E.: That was the effect the Nation of Islam had on a lot of black people. The discipline, the self-reliance, the fact that you were working for your people. There was a phrase FDR used: “a rendezvous with destiny.” The Nation of Islam gave people that. We were going to be redeemed. That had a big effect on black people. But Ali became more conservative, as you say, and I think that was in keeping with a certain aspect of his character. What was it that Faulkner said? The human heart is in conflict with itself. On the one hand, I think he wanted very much to be this rebel, and on the other hand, there was something in him that wanted to be obedient.


J.E.: And loved. The rebel who wants to be loved, that’s really the heart of the conflict. Those are two of Ali’s greatest impulses. Trying to be a rebel and get people to like you, that’s hard.


G.E.: Colin Kaepernick is finding that out. So I hear you’re working now on a book about King.


J.E.: Yeah, I was hoping you might teach me everything I need to know! I’m about two years into it. I’ve done a lot of really great interviews, and I’ve been able to get most of the big names, but maybe more fun is some of the unknowns, people from the neighborhood who grew up with him, his old barber from Montgomery. I feel like I might be the last one to get some of these voices. I’ve already had some of them pass away. My biggest reason for doing this is that as a country, we’ve turned him into a holiday and a national monument and forgotten so much about him. How radical he was. How funny he was. We need a biography every generation to humanize him, so we don’t turn him into a myth.



The Risk of Writing About Another Race

J.E.: I suspect I will run into some flak when the King book comes out. But when it comes to getting interviews, I haven’t. I’ve had a lot of people challenge me—why are you doing this book?—but none of them have objected to having a white person tell the story. The publishing industry expressed some hesitation. I had several editors say to me, “We don’t like the optics of having a white person,” especially if humanizing him includes talking about the latest revelations about his sex life and the discussions about whether he suffered from depression. That’s going to be even more difficult coming from a white writer, and I totally get that, and I really don’t know how to handle it, except for not writing the book. Maybe the publishing industry shouldn’t assign a white writer to do it, I don’t know.


G.E.: I’m of the mind that whoever wants to do a book, go ahead and do the book. I’m not of the mind that a certain subject belongs to a certain group of people. To me, that goes against the grain of what the humanities are about. The whole point is that you can empathize with people who are not like you. When I was an 11-year-old reading Oliver Twist, I was some black kid in Philadelphia; I certainly wasn’t a white kid in nineteenth-century London. But I intensely identified with those children. The book moved me tremendously.


J.E.: And in junior high, a friend gave me Soul on Ice. That’s the most powerful thing a book can do: take you into another persons’ world. [He draws a deep breath.] I think the key is, the book will be criticized if it falls short. The most important thing I can do is just do the work, and do it as well as I can.


Restoring King’s Humanity

J.E.: What I wanted to ask you about King is, what do you feel are the themes or the strains a biography for the 2020s ought to deal with? Have you thought about where we’ve gone wrong in our public view, our public image of King?


G.E.: It’s pretty much what you were saying: He’s become sort of institutionalized, a Mount Rushmore type of figure. To humanize him is a good project. The other thing is, he’s used by people, and particularly by conservatives, in a way that’s just inaccurate. The guy was pretty much a Marxist. He cooled it down a little bit for leadership purposes, but I think he was always a Marxist. This sort of thing should be brought out so that people understand how radical he was. His movement was very, very radical. I don’t think people fully understand that now. I don’t think people fully understood it when it was happening.


J.E.: And he got more radical as his career went on, which is unusual. We talk about Ali—when people become famous and powerful, they tend to want to consolidate that power. King did the opposite.


G.E.: The conservatives have taken him over and wanted to present him in certain way, which just isn’t true.


J.E.: Some people would say it’s the curse of Ronald Reagan. He gave King this national holiday, and we start telling his story a different way to make it fit for kindergarteners. And when you do that, it all becomes about holding hands with your white and black classmates.


G.E.: People don’t even do the whole March on Washington speech! They just want to do that little part about “I want my daughter to be judged not by the color of her skin…” They don’t do the part that talks about the check, the check being the metaphor for what America owes black people.


J.E.: He’s talking about reparations.


G.E.: Yeah, and that’s never done in school. But that’s a radical speech. And those things King was saying in that speech were things he said constantly in a whole bunch of speeches. He was very consistent in that regard. The Riverside Church speech he gave against Vietnam, if you had been following his speeches, should not have come as a big surprise.


J.E.: And he never toned it down. He wins the Nobel, and he’s pressed, because he’s the only guy who can raise money in the organization, and he has to make hundreds of speeches a year to generate income. It would have made his path a little easier if he had just toned it down, but he never did.


G.E.: Well it sounds like this is going to be an impressive book.


J.E.: I think King’s family has finally loosened up a little bit. More stuff’s getting done.


G.E.: Well, he’s such a monumental figure in American history, it’s kind of hard to talk about him like he’s just pure intellectual property. He’s not exactly Elvis Presley at Graceland.


J.E.: What some friends of the family have told me is that Coretta felt really burned that they had nothing when he died, and the kids feel like they got shafted that their father was taken away from them, and now they had no money. And I can understand that. The other good thing about this is that I’m finding a ton of new archival material, like the tapes Coretta made for her autobiography just months after King died. And Fisk University sent a team down after the boycotts started and documented the hell out of that. So there’s really good stuff that the previous biographers didn’t have, plus I have access to their tapes, the outtakes. The FBI tapes won’t be released until 2027—there’s a part of me that feels like it might be smart to wait, but then again, I don’t know! The David Garrow story that came out last year about some of the FBI files didn’t get as much coverage as I thought it would. The Times didn’t even really cover it; they did an op-ed. I think people just weren’t sure how to handle it.


G.E.: Yeah, it was pretty explosive, particularly the charge that King had witnessed a rape. My wife is a Baptist, and none of it seemed to surprise her very much.


J.E.: In this new collection of letters from Langston Hughes, he talks about the allegations about King and says the very same thing. He says the FBI just didn’t know that’s what Baptist preachers do! His words, not mine. We all knew King had affairs. I talked to an old friend of King’s, and she said when he was fourteen or fifteen, he was obsessed with the fact that his father was sleeping with all these women in the church, and he talked all the time about how “I’m not gonna be like that.” But even at the age of fourteen, he was juggling three girlfriends, so this woman was laughing about it being no surprise: He was gonna turn out just like his daddy. The witnessing of a rape allegation is the item that concerned me the most. How do they know it was really him? There were a bunch of people in the room. And it wasn’t the transcript. The rape was just mentioned in a note in the margins of a memo.



Early’s Neighborhood

J.E.: What are you writing now?


G.E.: I’ve been working on a book about my hometown, Philadelphia, and the neighborhood I grew up in. It was one of the first black neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and it’s changed so much over the years, as it got gentrified. There’s this African festival, and over the years it has caused some real tension. Now it’s mainly Asian and white residents, and they’ve been saying, “We don’t want this African festival. It brings—” They don’t want to say it brings black people, but they say it brings crime. I took my daughter there, and she was very surprised at how orderly the festival was. There’s no alcohol permitted, and she said, “Oh, that’s definitely going to make people behave better.” The festival opens with this big march to the Schuylkill River, and they make this offering to Oshun, the Yoruba river god. It’s actually quite moving. There are black people who have become Yoruba there, but most of the people are Christians or Muslims—yet for this one hour, everybody feels like they’re African. There are still some black people living in the neighborhood, but it’s mainly white and Asian. It’s become very upscale, because people discovered, oh, wow, we’ve got black people living in this neighborhood that really is a very prime part of Philadelphia. [Chuckling.]


J.E.: It’s prime real estate. That’s the story of so many cities now. Chicago, suddenly people woke up and realized, Cabrini Green is really close to the Water Tower. Let’s just move in, and eventually we’ll crowd them all out. And eventually they tore down the public housing.


G.E.: That’s what happened. They tore down public housing, and, yeah, they started crowding people out, because they realized that this area was close to downtown, close to the University of Pennsylvania, really convenient. I’ve interviewed former mayors of Philadelphia about it. People kept telling them, “We don’t want you to get rid of the festival, we just want you to move it. To where its…clientele is.”


J.E.: Where they’ll be more comfortable.


G.E.: Yeah. [They are both laughing.] And much to their credit, they wouldn’t move it.


J.E.:  So I’m curious, as a Philadelphia guy, were you rooting for Frazier?


G.E.: Not in the first fight, and not in the second fight. In both the first and second fights, I was rooting for Ali. I even saw the second fight. But in the third fight, the Thrilla in Manila, yeah, I was really pulling for Frazier. I thought that Ali’s act had gotten threadbare, and I was kind of tired of it, and I really wanted Frazier to win. I said, “Damn, man, Ali really is good!”


J.E.: They both nearly killed themselves in that fight. But it’s interesting: By the mid-seventies, you were becoming a Frazier fan, and white America was all in for Ali. Ali became the white man’s champ by the late ’70s. While he was going around calling everybody else Uncle Tom, he became the white man’s champ. I don’t know how he pulled it off.


G.E.: Yeah, Frazier by then had become a homeboy for me. Ali’s act was getting old, and I thought he was getting kind of fake.


J.E.: He definitely should have been retired by then. He should have quit after Foreman.


G.E.: But great athletes never do that. They never quit on the top.