By Kevin P. Kelly, reprinted with permission.
“The reason I wrote this book is because Martin has been so sanitized and so sterilized that the truth about who he really was, at some point, is going to be irrecoverable…we have frozen him in this frame at the Lincoln monument giving his “I have a Dream” speech. That was in 1963. He lived 5 years after 1963 and his views on America were dramatically different in ’68 than they were in ’63…”
So began my conversation with PBS broadcaster and author Tavis Smiley about his latest book Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year. Smiley’s work marks a departure from other biographical efforts about Dr. King, both in scope and content. Focusing on the tumultuous year leading up to King’s assassination, Smiley challenges the widely-held, media-perpetuated view of Dr. King as simply an idealistic civil rights “dreamer,” introducing instead a sentient and discerning King focused on expanding his message. While 1963 King dreamed of integration, 1968 King recognized that the malignancies of war, intolerance and penury were all inextricably linked, and that successful continuation of our democracy demanded attention to all three. According to Smiley, it was the promotion of this belief- that racism, militarism and poverty were three legs of a stool upon which sat most of the ills of the world- to which King devoted the final years of his life.
How is it, then, that Americans are so unaware of King’s daring Vietnam-era challenge to militarism and poverty, and his resulting struggles and suffering? Smiley points to several responsible parties, including those who do not want the story to change because they are “vested in the story that we do tell, so there is money to be made…”, those who are simply made too uncomfortable by King’s truth, and “…a media that has been complicit…in perpetuating this fairytale of Martin King for the last 50 years…”.
Death of a King opens with King’s delivery of his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, one in which he heavily criticizes President Lyndon Johnson’s role in the Vietnam War. Against the advice of friends and advisors, King appeared at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day prior to his assassination, to issue the forceful condemnation. Smiley explains that this address marked a turning point for King because it “was the most controversial speech he had ever given, and ….in ‘Beyond Vietnam,’ he used a phrase that got him in a world of trouble… a reference to America as ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.’”
Overnight, King went from civil rights icon to pariah as the once-affable White House and the media turned on him. “When Dr. King gave the speech he knew there was going to be some pushback, but he had no idea how extreme and how volatile it was going to be,” said Smiley. Newspapers such as the New York Times characterized King’s approach to Vietnam as “wasteful and self-defeating…” The Washington Post joined in the chorus of criticism, saying of the civil rights leader: “He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.”
King continued his vociferous criticism of the war, pointing out that many American soldiers who had been conscripted for Vietnam were from impoverished homes or communities; further, that these men were being asked to fight overseas for freedoms and equalities that they did not themselves enjoy in the United States.
Long an advocate of the poor, King undertook what Smiley terms the “Poverty Tour” during which he traveled across the United States, meeting with the disadvantaged in order to better understand their plight. Within Death of a King, Smiley describes these encounters with families trapped in poverty of differing degrees, but emphasizes King’s life-altering visit to Marks, Mississippi, “… where he just broke down in tears…King had always been concerned about the issue of poverty, but once he got a chance to have the experience of seeing this kind of abject poverty in his own country he decided he was going to engage in what he called a Poor People’s Campaign.” Only weeks before his assassination, King began planning travel to the nation’s capital in order to create “Resurrection City”. Striking in its similarity to the contemporary Occupy Movement, Resurrection City was to include thousands of tents that would occupy the capital until such time as the federal government adequately addressed the issue of poverty. Smiley explains, “King’s viewpoint was that not only is poverty threatening our very democracy, not only is poverty a matter of national security, but the money that we are wasting on this Vietnam War ought to be spent here at home. So, King said, and I quote: ‘War is the enemy of the poor.’”
While King grappled publicly with racism, militarism, poverty, a hostile White House and an antagonistic media, he privately battled crippling internal divisions. His “Beyond Vietnam” speech had succeeded in creating a civil war within King’s own SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). Advisors and board members became increasingly worried about the direction that King was taking the organization. Many opposed his antiwar activities and his Poor People’s Campaign, believing that he should focus purely upon civil liberties and race. Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover’s unfettered FBI spied upon the preacher under the pretense of investigating communist sympathies. FBI informants had even infiltrated the SCLC, as James Harrison, SCLC Treasurer, was later discovered to be spying for the Bureau.
Smiley notes that in the year between King’s infamous “Beyond Vietnam” speech and his assassination,”… a national poll indicated that 75 percent of the American people thought he was irrelevant, and nearly 60 percent of black people thought he was ‘persona non grata.’” King, heartbroken and forsaken by even those he loved most, continued on with his fight against militarism, racism and poverty until the day of his death.
Tavis Smiley speculates that if King were alive today, he would still persist in this battle because “…almost 50 years after his death, in Ferguson, Missouri, what do we see on display? Racism, poverty, and militarism…” King, no stranger to challenging authority at the highest level, had successfully lobbied the support of Kennedy and Johnson on civil rights and that of Eisenhower during the 1957 desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Smiley believes that King would have continued this practice, as well, challenging Barack Obama to do more, as President: “…He would do it in love, as he always did…He would be lovingly critiquing Barack Obama. He would appreciate the fact, and I am sure applaud the fact, that Barack Obama is the first African-American President, but on the issue of poverty, he’d be pushing him to do more. It took him six years to give a major address declaring that income inequality is the defining issue of our time…It has taken him six years to even get him fighting for an increase in the minimum wage… He’d be pushing him on racism and why he’s been so eerily silent on race, even when he could have an impact…Third, he’d be challenging Obama on the issue of militarism. Barack Obama is engaging a policy of drone use that is on steroids. The fact that he has used more drones and killed more innocent women and children than George Bush did, King would not tolerate that…”
Smiley ended our conversation with the idea that we all have responsibility to make conditions favorable for King’s legacy of “… justice for all, service to others, and a love that liberates.” When pressed to offer the name of any person that he felt embodied King’s vision today, Smiley hesitated, saying “…there are so many people who fit that bill, people who are in the trenches everyday whose names we do not know, but who are doing the heavy lifting, trying to redeem the soul of this nation that is lost in so many ways…people doing the work needed to make America a nation that is one day as good as its promise.”
Tavis Smiley’s Death of a King presents to us a much different Dr. King than our high school textbooks did – “the public servant, not the perfect servant”- and we are better for the introduction. Far removed from the elevated and untouchable dreamer, Smiley’s pragmatic, flawed, very human King is suddenly one of us, and all the more relatable, beautiful and worthy of emulation for his struggles.
Kevin Patrick Kelly is a university student majoring in History and Political Science. Previously, he was a columnist for Washington Times Communities. Follow him on Twitter @TheKevinPKelly.