Review of Tavis Smiley's “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year”

tags: book review, Tavis Smiley, Death of a King

Michael Honey is author of “Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign,” and editor of King’s labor speeches, “All Labor Has Dignity,” along with other works on labor and civil rights history. He is Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington Tacoma.

Television and radio talk show host and author Tavis Smiley plays an important role in our culture. The mass media’s discussions are so limited in scope and distorted by prejudice that most people have little opportunity to become well informed. Smiley provides that opportunity. As an avid reader and provocative thinker, he keeps pressing in new directions through his Public Broadcasting and Public Radio programs, his sixteen books on various subjects, and his book tours and town hall meetings. His new book, Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year (Little, Brown, and Co., 2014) now moves us toward reconsidering the legacy one of the most important human rights leaders of the twentieth century.

Those of us who lived our lives in the movement or who write about it now have often commented on the startling trajectory of King’s last year of life. On April 4, 1967, at a speech in Riverside Church in New York City, he excoriated the American war in Vietnam as a travesty; he named U.S. policy as state-inspired murder, economic imperialism, and racial and political arrogance. All of it, he warned, could lead the U.S. down the path of great nations that wasted their resources and moral authority on the mass violence of war. Often titled “Beyond Vietnam,” King’s speech remains the most powerful indictment of the interplay of American militarism, racism, and poverty. Leading to the deaths of over two million Vietnamese and a cascading series of tragedies in Laos and to mass genocide in Cambodia, American policy was not a “mistake,” as both liberal and conservative commentators often supposed. Rather, in King’s view, it represented the systemic illness of an American capitalism hooked on war.

Every major media outlet condemned King for the speech, which more than one civil rights activist called the “death knell” for Dr. King. One year later, to the day, on April 4, 1968, an assassin murdered him. Smiley sees Dr. King’s determination to support black sanitation strikers demanding a living wage and union rights in Memphis as the other end of a heroic and tragic arc. King saw the Memphis strike as part of his Poor People’s Campaign to demand that government reverse its spending priorities from napalm, death and destruction to investments in jobs, education, health care, and housing that would provide a floor for all Americans. He aimed to organize poor whites, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, women on welfare, and especially black teenagers trapped in the living death of the jobless inner cities and stalked by mendacious white police. King’s murder set off the largest domestic uprising and use of domestic military force to suppress it since the Civil War.

Tavis Smiley does an admirable job of drawing out the drama, the ironies, and the desperation of King’s last year. Most historians will know most of this story and in greater detail, yet Smiley has something special to offer: he has loaded the book with vignettes and personal stories gleaned from his years of interviews with people who knew King up close and personal. In a recent interview with Robin Lindley on the History News Network, Smiley speaks of King’s “radical empathy” and his refusal to give up on “deep and abiding love,” and tells how King’s message of love and forgiveness helped to save Smiley during a moment of intense pain in his own young life. The importance of his unique perspective comes through powerfully, as Smiley presents King’s last year in the most personal of ways, portraying flash points, constant tension and terror, taking us almost minutely through the details of King’s last days. He imagines himself inside King’s mind and tells us how King felt; he uses the friendly term most of King’s staff used for him, referring to King throughout the book as “Doc”; he shows him as totally human, suffering greatly yet persisting in audaciously challenging both systemic racism and the American war machine.

All of this works well for the most part. Smiley uses no footnotes but he lists an interesting array of sources in the appendix, including most importantly the personal interviews that deeply inform his account. Much of Smiley’s narrative recapitulates King’s speeches and sermons, most of which are best read (and are easily available) in full or heard on audio; yet the day to day detail and the little vignettes in this book provide a way for us to better understand King’s outpourings of thoughts and emotions in his last year. In recreating King’s earnest conversations with prostitutes and street people, his attempts to win gang members and Black Nationalists over to nonviolence, and to win his supporters to the Poor People’s Campaign, Smiley renders the human drama of King in an arresting fashion.

I have long believed, and Smiley makes it clear, that King’s last year was his most heroic: buffeted by opposition from all sides, by the overflow of violence in American cities and on the battlefields of Vietnam, going against a culture drenched in racism and media distortions fueled by the FBI, stalked by U.S. Military Intelligence, FBI and right-wing zealots – many of them armed and ready to kill - King held fast to his role as a speaker of truth, a prophet who called on his country to turn away from the destructive paths laid bare in 1967-1968. Smiley shows us King at his most prophetic, his most distressed and disturbed, and his most vulnerable; it is King constantly on the brink of nervous breakdown, traveling and speaking relentlessly with only a few hours of sleep per night, his family life and his sense of well being disintegrating, and well aware of impending death.

It is a harrowing story that Americans need to hear. In his narrative, Smiley asks us, what happened to our greatest prophet of love and hope? What kind of democracy kills off its best leaders? Americans failed to hear either King’s chosen voice of calm reason or the frustrated, angry voice of outrage that he used to bring moral clarity. Why does the mass media ignore such voices? What can an individual do to uphold right when the culture at large is swimming in delusions? This is a story not just about 1967-68, surely one of the most volatile and tragic years of American history. It is also a story about now. It is a story about American misadventures and militarism in the Middle East, about its failures to care for the homeless, the poor, the unemployed, the children and the old, to stem its culture of fear, its mass incarceration and police violence and its systemic racism.

Death of a King asks us, what else died along with Martin Luther King? What remains of his legacy, what spirit continues to live with us in the present? How can we best understand and learn from King’s example? In Smiley’s telling, this is not just history; this is personal. This story should make us look at ourselves, our families, and a society that is failing to live up to its best principles. Oceans of ink have been spilled on the story of Dr. King, yet there is much more to say. Perhaps we need to read this story as told not by a historian, but by a commentator who wants us to think, to discuss, to imagine, and to come up with something better.

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