A new MLK biography, King: A Life

a committed radical

I am doing a new thing. Having credits on Audible, I’m listening to the new book, King: A Life, about the late Martin Luther King, Jr. I haven’t gotten very far in it as it runs nearly 24 hours, or over 550 pages, excluding copious notes.

Still, I’ve learned that his grandfather, James Albert King, married Delia, and both were Georgia sharecroppers. James became an alcoholic, in no small part due to the stresses of Jim Crow.

James’ son Michael managed to get a high school education and attended Morehouse College to study for the ministry. He also began to woo the daughter of a minister at an Atlanta church. And not just any church. Adam Daniel Williams had been the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church since 1894.

Adam and Jennie’s daughter Alberta began dating Michael in 1920 and married on November 25, 1926. The author suggested that Michael’s courting of Alberta was as much a function of ambition as love.

Shortly after marrying Alberta, Michael became assistant pastor of the Ebenezer church. Senior pastor Williams died in the spring of 1931 and that fall, Michael took the role.

By this time, Michael and Alberta had three children: Christine (m. Farris, 1927-2023), Michael Jr. (1929-1968), and  Alfred Daniel “A. D.” (1930-1969).

Name change

This description from the Smithsonian dovetails with the book: “In 1934, [MLK Jr.’] father embarked on a religious journey around the world. The senior King traveled to Rome, Tunisia, Egypt, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem before arriving in Berlin to attend the Baptist World Alliance meeting. The trip to Germany, which occurred only one year after Adolf Hitler became chancellor, would profoundly affect him. As he toured, the senior King gained a great respect for German monk and theologian Martin Luther, whose 95 Theses challenged the Catholic Church and ultimately split Western Christianity.”

Michael Sr. changed his name to Martin Luther King in August 1934, and his elder son was soon renamed.

Publisher’s description

This description of the book was on the  MacMillan Publishers website: 

“Vividly written and exhaustively researched, Jonathan Eig’s King: A Life is the first major biography in decades of the civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.―and the first to include recently declassified FBI files. In this revelatory new portrait of the preacher and activist who shook the world, the bestselling biographer gives us an intimate view of the courageous and often emotionally troubled human being who demanded peaceful protest for his movement but was rarely at peace with himself.

“He casts fresh light on the King family’s origins as well as MLK’s complex relationships with his wife, father, and fellow activists. King reveals a minister wrestling with his own human frailties and dark moods, a citizen hunted by his own government, and a man determined to fight for justice even if it proved to be a fight to the death. As he follows MLK from the classroom to the pulpit to the streets of Birmingham, Selma, and Memphis, Eig dramatically re-creates the journey of a man who recast American race relations and became our only modern-day founding father―as well as the nation’s most mourned martyr.

“In this landmark biography, Eig gives us an MLK for our times: a deep thinker, a brilliant strategist, and a committed radical who led one of history’s greatest movements and whose demands for racial and economic justice remain as urgent today as they were in his lifetime.”

And still, we rise.

Eig spent about a quarter of the book about MLK before the Montgomery Bus Boycott years. I suspect that grounding will give the reader a complete understanding of the man as more than an icon.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently wrote in the preview of his Substack page:

“Life is an endless series of making decisions, some easy and some difficult. But each of them causes some level of anxiety… That is why people turn to heroes and saviors to make their decisions for them. If we choose to follow someone else’s teachings, we abdicate responsibility for the outcome of following those teachings…

“I have had many heroes in my life, [including] Dr. King. However, the difference between heroes and the cult of personality is that I accept the flaws in my heroes. What made them heroes is that they were just ordinary people who were willing to risk personal comfort to make the world a better place. They didn’t have to be saints. They didn’t always have to be right.”

I thought this was a cogent analysis as I worked my way through the book. I’m looking forward to reading King: A Life in memory of the 66th anniversary of his assassination. Meanwhile, I’ll read a little Maya.

Book review: Vince Guaraldi at the Piano

Vince Guaraldi was known as the “Italian leprechaun.” He was short, barely over five feet tall, and youthful looking; this was the reason for his signature mustache, to look older.

If you know the name Vince Guaraldi, it’s probably because you associate the pianist as the composer of the music for the Peanuts television specials, starting in the mid-1960s. However, Doctor Funk, one of his nicknames, codified in a song he wrote and performed a decade earlier, was a well-respected performer and composer in the Bay Area/Northern California jazz scene.

Derrick Bang notes in the preface of Vince Guaraldi at the Piano that he was a reluctant writer of Vince’s legacy, expecting that someone more personally knowledgeable of the performer would surely show up to pen his story. Finding none, he put together an almost encyclopedic recollection of the musician’s life, starting with the influence of his mother. He had two failed father figures in his life, and just as Freddy Lennon reached out to John after the Beatles were famous, Vince’s dad sought to re-enter Vince’s life after Peanuts; both John and Vince said an emphatic “NO.”

Vince was an important member of combos fronted by Cal Tjader and Woody Herman (the third “thundering herd”). He actually had a Top 40 hit with Cast Your Fate to the Wind [listen] (#22 in 1963), though you may know the song better from the cover version by Sounds Orchestral (#10 in 1965). His jazz mass was revolutionary for its time. Like too many musicians, though, he got the short end of a lot of business deals early on.

Vince was also known as the “Italian leprechaun.” He was short, barely over five feet tall, and youthful-looking; this was the reason for his signature mustache, to look older. He also could have quite a temper, especially as it applied to the music, but he seldom held a grudge.

This is an important book, which I’d like to have in my library, not so much to read, but to refer to, like many reference books published by McFarland Press. He crossed paths with an interesting group of folks, including comedian-social activist Dick Gregory, influential jazz critic Ralph Gleason, plus musicians from the Kingston Trio to Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. It was Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete, though, who helped infuse the bossa nova influence that’s apparent in many of the Peanuts themes.

Some folks call this a biography, while at least one described it as more of an “expanded provenance.” It surely doesn’t always read like a bio, but the information’s all there. And the early chapters plus the ones after Vince’s sudden death in 1976, before his 48th birthday, allowed for a more reflective style.

Peanuts creator Charles Schultz died in 2000; 15 months later, he was posthumously given the Congressional Gold Medal. Peanuts TV writer/producer/director Lee Mendelson was expecting the Marine Corps Band to perform the national anthem. But when they played Linus and Lucy [listen] instead, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” And, oddly enough, that included me too. So even with this wealth of facts, there IS an interesting story narrative within as well.

Check out It’s Jazz, Charlie Brown: the Vince Guaraldi Story. Profile of jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. Aired on WFIU / Indiana Public Radio’s “Night Lights” program on December 7, 2009. 59 minutes.

Guess who won FREE TICKETS to “It’s a Jazzy Christmas”, featuring the music of Vince Guaraldi, at the College of St. Rose’s Massry Center this afternoon?


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