cover image Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Year

Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Year

Tavis Smiley with David Ritz . Little, Brown, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-316-33276-7

"In his last year, what kind of man had Martin Luther King, Jr. become?" is the question Smiley (What I Know for Sure) raises, asserting that he has "come to firmly believe that, in a critical way, [King] is misunderstood." The book focuses for the most part on the year between King's April 4, 1967 anti-war speech in New York and his April 4, 1968 assassination in Memphis, but also passes through such earlier landmarks as the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington. Snippets from King's sermons, speeches, and press conferences abound, along with tidbits from the media coverage of the time. Smiley also covers King's marital problems, depression, smoking and drinking habits, musical tastes, and even his (hypothetical) internal thoughts. Smiley's referring to his subject throughout as "Doc," which was King's nickname among his "most trusted colleagues," here comes across as distracting. It is, however, typical of the book's chatty prose, which stumbles when attempting weighty references ("Like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane") or lyricism ("The sea sparkles with moonlight.") The answer to Smiley's opening question appears to be that King became deeply concerned with peace and poverty, no great revelation for anyone even passingly familiar with the history of those years. But Smiley's efforts to show the man who was his hero since he was a young boy adds a dimension to the reams of writing about Dr. King. Agent: David Vigliano and Thomas Flannery Jr., Vigliano Associates (Sept.)