By Rae Padilla Francoeur
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“Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year” By Tavis Smiley with David Ritz. Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2014. 288 pages. $30.
At this year’s BookExpo America in New York City, Tavis Smiley spoke at a breakfast gathering about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the grueling, fraught last year of King’s life. Smiley, himself an eloquent and moving speaker, said that the years since King’s 1968 assassination have not served King’s legacy well. He is remembered primarily for the sniper’s bullet that brought him down on April 4, 1968, for his unequivocal stand on nonviolence, and for little else beyond a “handful of fanciful speeches.” “Ironically, his martyrdom has undermined his message.”
Smiley said he intended for this new book, “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year,” to restore some depth to our recollections of this great and complicated man. Between April 4, 1967, when King first publicly spoke out about the link between the war in Vietnam and racism, and April 4, 1968, when he was killed, he refused to defer to his detractors who strongly urged him to reconsider. Almost twice as many blacks as whites were fighting and dying in Vietnam, King argued. The link between the war, unnecessary and violent, racism and poverty is there for all to see. If we oppose racism, we must oppose the war.
Many of King’s closest supporters and advisors told him that he would make a grave and irrational error if he linked the war to racism. They suggested his ego was clouding his judgment. Why endanger their standing and alienate their most valuable advocate? President Lyndon Johnson was conducting a committed, vigorous campaign in Vietnam at the time. Attacking the war was tantamount to attacking Johnson, one of the blacks’ most useful and influential allies. Friends, aides, media and followers opposed and ultimately vilified King, even in his presence in public gatherings. Adding to the harsh stressors were 127 race riots in the summer of 1967, an escalation in the number of threats against King’s life and the FBI’s ramped-up campaign to discredit King at any cost including fabrication and publication of lies. Among the most crushing incidents was a march in Memphis, just weeks before his assassination, that took a violent turn. King was in the march and the media levied harsh blame on the flagging crusader.
According to polls, during that agonizing year for King and for the entire country, three-quarters of the American people turned against him and 57 percent of blacks thought him to be irrelevant. The youngest Nobel Laureate in history had been marginalized. His ideas about poverty linked to the war and about nonviolence were suddenly out of date. Black power seemed to supplant passive resistance. What King and the movement achieved was yesterday’s news. The country was moving on in new and difficult directions. King was badly hurt. Yet he felt immensely responsible, as if he, by sheer effort and will, could unite opposing factions and restore nonviolent civil disobedience as the operative tool. The exhausted and depressed man, growing more tired and embattled by the day, never gave up. He produced rousing sermons of hope for all time, sermons that were surely written as a means to personal inspiration.
The book does a creditable job building a taut and distressing arc. From the day of the announcement to the day of King’s death by gunshot, the story grows heavy and weary and terribly sad. In the last pages, the author brings us to a clearing, where King seems to have come to terms with the cruelest of his torments — his fragile mortality. “I’d rather be dead than afraid,” he tells his friends.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.
Book Notes: Tavis Smiley looks at MLK’s last year
By Rae Padilla Francoeur