Chicago author Jonathan Eig wins Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking biography of Martin Luther King Jr.

CHICAGO — Chicago historian Jonathan Eig won a 2024 Pulitzer Prize for biography for “King: A Life,” his 2023 biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., a bestseller widely recognized for its monumental scope and fresh findings. Even some previous King biographers have called Eig’s work the new definitive narrative about the civil rights leader.

In awarding the prize, the Pulitzer committee cited Eig’s book as not only “revelatory” but a biography that “draws on new sources to enrich our understanding of each stage of the civil rights leader’s life, exploring his strengths and weaknesses, including the self-questioning and depression that accompanied his determination.”

Eig was home alone in Lakeview when he heard the announcement.

In a phone interview Monday, he said: “I have been a journalist since I was 16 and, you know, someone wrote in my high school yearbook that I’d win a Pulitzer someday, and I still can’t believe it actually happened. I am so proud of this book and so glad it received recognition. As Taylor Swift said, the work is the award. Still, the award is pretty nice.”

Eig split the award category with author Ilyon Woo’s “Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey From Slavery to Freedom,” an account of Ellen and William Craft, a 19th century enslaved couple who escaped bondage by posing as “master” (Ellen) and slave (William). The only finalist in the category was Tracy Daugherty’s “Larry McMurtry: A Life,” the story of the famed author of “The Last Picture Show” and “Lonesome Dove.”

Eig, who is 60, attended Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and began his career as a sports reporter in Upstate New York, though for the past 20 years he’s been one of the most prominent biographers in the United States. He’s written about Lou Gehrig (“The Luckiest Man,” 2005), Jackie Robinson (“Opening Day,” 2007) and Al Capone (“Get Capone,” 2010); his 2017 biography “Ali: A Life,” about Muhammad Ali, was also celebrated as the definitive account of its subject’s life.

But “King” — which challenged decades of popular understandings of the civil rights leader’s short life, including a long-held assumption of animosity towards the more outwardly militant Malcolm X — was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the New York Historical Society’s book prize. Eig toured for most of the past year and spoke as a guest at Baptist churches and even the Apollo Theater for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day festivities. Last fall, the rights to the book were also optioned by Universal Pictures, for a feature to be produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Chris Rock.

Two previous books about King have won Pulitzers: Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954 to 1963,” which won the 1989 Pulitzer for history, and “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Leadership Conference,” by David J. Garrow, which won the 1987 Pulitzer for biography. Garrow, who shared his archive on King with Eig, told the Tribune last spring the new book would succeed his own as the definitive take and was a “leap forward” in understanding.

“It’s kind of hard to top the year I just had,” Eig said on the phone. “This is icing on the cake, but very sweet icing.”