Home Lifestyle Martin Luther King Jr. Biographer Wins American History Prize

Martin Luther King Jr. Biographer Wins American History Prize

Martin Luther King Jr. Biographer Wins American History Prize


Jonathan Eig, the author of “King: A Life,” has been named the winner of the New-York Historical Society’s 2024 Barbara and David Zalaznick Book Prize, which is awarded annually for the best work of American history or biography.

Billed as the first major biography of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in decades, Eig’s book draws on recently declassified government records and other new sources to take a panoramic yet intimate look at Dr. King. The book places him in the context of the many figures, inside and outside the civil rights movement, who shaped his thinking and actions.

The biography, almost 700 pages long, shows a young King struggling to establish himself in the shadow of his father, a prominent Baptist preacher and community leader in Atlanta. As King and his movement grew, Eig shows him in a complicated dance with white leaders like President Lyndon B. Johnson, who sometimes supported and sometimes hampered him, and with more radical Black activists who increasingly saw him as dedicated to an outmoded form of “respectability politics.”

While hailing King as “one of America’s founding fathers,” Eig doesn’t stint on his personal struggles and flaws, including his marital infidelities and posthumous revelations of plagiarism in his doctoral dissertation. Reviewing the biography last year in The New York Times, Dwight Garner called it “a very human, and quite humane, portrait” that is “worthy of its subject.”

The historical society’s prize, which comes with a cash reward of $50,000, honors books that are accessible to a general readership. It generally focuses on works of political history that keep founders, presidents and other prominent figures at the center of the frame, if not always in a celebratory way. Last year’s winner was “G-Man,” Beverly Gage’s biography of J. Edgar Hoover, who as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation worked to undermine Dr. King, authorizing wiretaps of his home and office and planting bugs in his hotel rooms.

In a statement, the historical society’s board chair, Agnes Hsu-Tang, called Eig’s biography of Dr. King “a deft, multidimensional portrayal” that avoids hagiography, showing how “America — and its many founders — can be both heroic and imperfect.”

Other past winners of the prize include Alan Taylor, Drew Gilpin Faust and Jill Lepore.


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