When Tavis Smiley established himself in the broadcast business in 2002, the legendary talk show host made a point of frequently featuring guests closely associated with Martin Luther King Jr., such as Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and King’s wife, Coretta Scott King. Smiley wanted to learn everything he could about the man who has been his hero since he was a 12-year-old boy growing up in a small, mostly white Indiana town.
Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year (Little, Brown, Sept.) is Smiley’s 17th book, and perhaps it’s the most meaningful for a man who is one of the last talk show hosts in the national media to promote authors and ideas. Death of a King opens with King’s controversial “Beyond Vietnam” speech, which was delivered at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, and in which the civil rights leader condemned the war and America’s proclivity for militarism. “He stood up and called America ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.’ A black man says this! And the next day, the cosmos turns against him,” says Smiley, speaking to me in his Los Angeles office. “In rapid succession, the White House, the media, the Urban League, and both black and white King supporters condemned him for speaking out against U.S. policy at the height of the Vietnam war.”
“It’s a story that we don’t want told because it’s easier for us to freeze-frame Dr. King in our minds in that ‘I have a dream’ speech, ‘free at last,’ at the height of his oratory and activism—that’s the King we want,” Smiley says. “But we can’t ignore people who are trying to tell us hard, unsettling truths about our government.”
In “Beyond Vietnam,” King also said that America’s racism, poverty, and militarism represents a “triple threat” against democracy—words that made the FBI mark him a subversive and led to an increase in the wiretapping he had already put up with for years. “Death of a King puts a harsh, hot spotlight on our government, the media, on white and black America,” Smiley notes. “If you’re a member of the NAACP, like I am, and you see what Roy Wilkins said about King then, or a writer for the New York Times, it’s an embarrassment, how we labeled him as ‘too subversive.’ But the truth needs to be told so Dr. King can be properly situated [historically].”
Smiley hesitates before mentioning the image of King as a smiling dreamer: “This is going to get me in trouble, but there’s money to be made as long as we cast King in a certain light. We can sell hats, postage stamps, and T-shirts; we can build him monuments and give him holidays. But that’s the sanitized, sterilized version of Dr. King, 50 years later.” As Smiley sees it, the truth about King the committed peace activist is much different. Death of a King is meticulously researched. “Dr. King had [FBI] informants all around him, including his own photographer, and with all that they never once got him on tape saying anything untoward about white people, or anybody else,” he says. “Martin King was as advertised, he was who we believed him to be, and that’s the most inspiring reality.”
Smiley’s TV show is broadcast on PBS, and his radio show is on Public Radio International. Bestselling crime novelist Michael Connelly says of Smiley, “His support of books has never been surface only. Smiley is always interested in the social reporting you find below the surface in novels. I admire that the most. He asks what the book is about, but he also asks what it means and what the message is. Believe me, that’s rare.”
“I’m very happy with my public media platform,” Smiley says. “At its best, it challenges us to reexamine the assumptions we hold, helps us expand our inventory of ideas, and introduces us to each other. I don’t think anybody fills that space better than authors.” Indeed, Smiley is one of the greatest advocates of authors in broadcasting, having conducted roughly 3,500 author interviews (“And that’s a low, minimum number”) during his 12 years on the air: “Authors help usher us into an arena that nobody else can. So do artists. So I see myself as this nexus where I’m allowed, especially because I’m a person of color, to bring ideas and innovations into people’s lives.”
So passionate is Smiley about books that 10 years ago he launched his own publishing company, SmileyBooks, in partnership with Hay House for sales and distribution. “My first eight or nine books were with Doubleday,” he says. “Then I realized there were things I was interested in reading that weren’t being published, so I started my own imprint.” SmileyBooks has been a success, publishing among others the New York Times bestsellers Peace from Broken Pieces by Iyanla Vanzant (2011), The Rich and the Rest of Us by Smiley and Cornel West (2012), and Smiley’s The Covenant in Action (2007).
The inspiration for Death of a King came to Smiley when he was at the lowest point of his life. One of 11 children, he was born to parents whose commitment to their Pentecostal church in Indiana, which was unwavering (they attended seven days a week). Then, one day, Smiley and his sister were accused by their minister of something they didn’t do. “[The minister] stood up in front of the entire congregation and chastised my sister and me,” Smiley recalls. “He never called us in for a conversation beforehand, never questioned us about our supposed offense. We never had a chance to defend ourselves. My mother and father were humiliated, with the whole church looking at them like they were terrible parents.”
That night Smiley’s father, a church trustee, lost his temper and, for the first and only time, beat Smiley and his sister “mercilessly,” to the point where they were both hospitalized for almost two weeks. Upon their release, they went into foster care. “My father was arrested and had to go to court,” says Smiley. “It was all over the news in our town, and was a terrible embarrassment for our family. The case worked its way through the system, and, although my sister never came back, I eventually returned home. It was emotionally, physically, and spiritually painful for me, and I couldn’t make sense of it as a child. Why would God let this happen?”
Following the incident, someone at the church gave Smiley a box of recordings of King’s speeches. It fundamentally changed his life: “When I heard the love in Dr. King’s voice, from that point on I wanted to learn everything I could about the man. He talked to the nation about love and forgiveness, but I knew he was talking to me. The only way to get myself out of what I was going through was to try to love my way through it. I had to forgive my father, the minister, and my mother for not stepping in, and that love ethic was so powerful.” Everything Smiley did from that point forward was intended to establish a spiritual relationship with the man who “saved [his] life.” Death of a King is a powerful tribute to that relationship. “Andrew Young called me last night to say he loved the book,” says Smiley. “He said, ‘Tavis, you nailed it.’ He was in tears, and so was I.”