Tavis Smiley addressed a large crowd at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza last week, as he promoted his latest book, “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year.” The book chronicles the multifaceted challenges that the celebrated civil rights leader faced during the last year of his life.
Smiley spoke for 30 minutes at the mall about the book, and he answered questions from people in attendance afterward. The author described what makes this book different from others that have been written about King.
“This book is literally the last year of his life. When I say the last year, I mean the last year,” Smiley said. “April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. gives the most controversial speech of his entire life. It causes everybody in this country to turn against him. So much so that by the time he dies (on April 4, 1968), he can’t get a paid speech, they won’t let him talk, the newspapers will not run his op-eds or editorials. He’s dis-invited to the White House. He’s written a book but nobody will publish it. They won’t let him preach in Black churches, as they have shunned him. His own organization, the SCLC, has passed a resolution to condemn him. Martin ends up dying bankrupt, and Harry Belafonte ends up having to pay for his funeral.”
Smiley touches on the speech that caused King’s work to unravel. The speech was given at Riverside Church in New York City, on the Upper Westside of Manhattan. The speech was called “Beyond Vietnam.” Smiley instructed the audience to search for the audio speech online.
“What Martin does on April 4, 1967, is something that White America, and Black America, deems unforgivable,” Smiley said. “Martin goes to New York and gives his reasons why we need to get out of this war with Vietnam, and why he is opposed to it. In the speech Martin refers to the United States of America. He says ‘my country is the greatest pervader of violence in the world today.’”
From that point on, according to Smiley, the media, White and Black, turned on King. Smiley goes on to say that in the last year of King’s life, 75 percent of Americans thought that King was irrelevant, and 60 percent of Black Americans felt that way.
“Imagine that you are Martin King, and the last year of your life, everyday you wake up, and everything and everybody has turned against you,” Smiley said. “You feel like the cosmos has shifted against you. You can’t do the work that you feel that you’ve been called to do because everybody is trying to shut you down. And everyday you have death threats.”
In the book, Smiley recounts the little known story of the denunciations by the press, rejection from the President of the United States, dismissal by the country’s Black elite and militant youth, assaults on his character, ideology and political tactics—all of which King had to rise above in the final year of his life in order to lead and address the racism, poverty and militarism that threatens, even still, to destroy the democracy of the United States.
At the conclusion of the question-and-answer period, Smiley signed copies of the book for those in attendance.