Tavis Smiley on the “Death of a King”

Early spring, 1976. A black boy lies beaten in a hospital room, wondering what he’d ever done to deserve such cruelty. Soon an old man from his church arrives with a big box of LPs.

When the man hands the 12-year-old the box, the boy smiles and says thank you. Not until doctors release him and he arrives home does he get to partake of his gift: a collection of recorded speeches by slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., his idol.

Listening, Tavis Smiley made the decision to live. Laugh. Love.

“He was talking to a nation about the power of love, but he might as well have been talking to me,” Smiley said the other day. “The more I listened to him the more I realized that love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend. I was going to have to love my way out of my predicament. Hate was not an option.”

Now, at age 50, the public television and radio host has done what he always knew he’d do — write a “love letter” of sorts to King, a 276-page chronicle of the year leading up to the minister’s assassination on that hot April day in 1968.

Written with David Ritz, “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year” is told in the present tense and lets the reader in on the three major issues King struggled with during the last year of his life: racism, poverty and militarism. They are the same issues, Smiley contends, that are the most pressing in the country half a century later.

In advance of his visit to Atlanta on Sept. 17 to promote the book, Smiley talked to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the effort, how it began, and what he hopes to accomplish.

Q. Tell me about the moment when your relationship with the King family went from distant observer to close friend.

A. It started when I was in college at Indiana University in 1984. I was part of a national organization called the Association of Christian Student Leaders. At one of our annual meetings in Atlanta, Mrs. King was kind enough to address the gathering and I got a chance to meet and spend a little time talking to her. I also met Bernice King and struck up a friendship that extended to the rest of the family over the years.

Q. How much did that friendship have to do with your writing "Death of a King"?

A. Not much. I'm glad to have gotten to know them, but I would have written this book at some point anyway. The publisher, Little Brown, had something in the works that didn't work out so they came to me when an agent told them how much I love King. They asked if I would consider writing a book … and if I did what would it be. It would be about the last year in his life. April 4, 1967 to April 4, 1968, because it was during that time that he came out against the war in Vietnam and everything turned against him. The White House. The media. White America and black America. Everybody turned on him, so the ultimate question for me was how did Dr. King stand in his truth with everybody against him? How did he navigate all those headwinds and continue to tell his truth?

Q. So much has been written about Dr. King. Why did you feel more needed to be said?

A. This story of the last year has never been told. King has three principal biographers: Taylor Branch, David Garrow and Clayborne Carson. They've done the heavy lifting. What hasn't been done is a real drill down on just that last year and what happened after he gave the Vietnam speech. So the Martin that I love most is not the Martin of "I Have A Dream" or the Nobel Peace Prize or the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The King that I love the most is the one who in that last year did not waiver when all hell was coming at him. This is the story about Dr. King that most people don't know. I think it represents the best of who he was. It is true that we really come to know who we are in our darkest moments. King was no different. Because he had moved out of the civil rights lane and was talking about the triple threat of racism, poverty and militarism, people didn't want to hear him.

Q. What do you hope readers will learn that they don't already know?

A. I hope that people get to know the truth about who he really was even though that truth is somewhat subversive. First, if you think he was just this happy-go-lucky guy with a smile on his face talking about a dream, he was much more than that. Number two, this book is necessary because if too much more time passes, the truth about who he really was is going to be irrecoverable. Once a narrative takes hold it's hard to change it. And thirdly, I hope that this book is a cautionary tale for what happens to a society when it ignores its truth tellers. There's a price to pay for that. If we don't get serious about this triple threat, we are going to lose our democracy. So almost 50 years after King's death, what do we see in Ferguson, Missouri? Racism, poverty and militarism. His truth is coming back to haunt us because we didn't take it seriously when he was exposing it. We're honoring him on the cheap. What King would prefer we do is not slap his name on monuments, schools and holidays, but to take seriously his legacy. Justice for all, service to others and a love that liberates people.