In Tavis Smiley’s personal assessment, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the greatest American this country has ever produced. “The problem is, as we approach the 50th anniversary of his assassination,” Smiley explains, King’s persona has been “too sanitized, sterilized, and lionized.” Writing Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last Year (Little, Brown. Sept.) is Smiley’s way to reclaim the legacy of a man he calls a prophet in a book that allows people to see the civil right leader “in all of his complexity.”
The book opens on April 4, 1967, when Dr. King gave a speech at the Riverside Church in Manhattan titled, “Beyond Vietnam,” in which he called the United States the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” A year later to the day, Dr. King was killed.
Smiley points out that we live in a country with MLK’s name on street signs and libraries, and his image is on a postage stamp, but during the last year of his life King was “talking about the triple threat of racism, poverty, and militarism” in America and “everyone turned on him.” Even the liberal media labeled King “anti-American,” says Smiley.
“It’s hard to juxtapose how we deify him now with how he was demonized then,” says Smiley. A Nobel laureate, King went from being Time magazine Man of the Year to “persona non grata,” and Smiley says his book about that tumultuous last year addresses the questions of what being turned on from all corners did to King as a person and a leader with an idea of truth he held dear.
“That’s the story we don’t know about him,” says Smiley. In Death of a King, Smiley portrays a real and very human leader, who suffered from depression, drank, and had affairs. “There’s nothing new there,” says Smiley. “But it tells the truth all the way around.” In Death of a King, Smiley hopes to introduce Americans of all ages to the real Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“When you read the book you will love Martin Luther King even more,” he says. “He stood flat-footed in his truth and showed the kind of courage, commitment, and conviction we see lacking in our leaders today.”
At bottom, King put the idea of “love” at the center of our public discourse—a love that Smiley translates to mean the equal worth of all living beings just because they exist. “I truly believe that the future of our democracy is inexplicably linked to how seriously we take the legacy of Dr. King,” Smiley says. And that legacy, he continues, is “justice for all, service to others, and the love that liberates people.”
With rhetoric like that, people often ask if Smiley will run for political office. His answer: no. Smiley says he likes doing his books and his talk shows, where he can introduce ideas and even Americans to each other.
Smiley is one of this morning’s Adult Book and Author Breakfast speakers in the Special Events Hall at 8 a.m.