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MLK's Final Year: An Interview with Tavis Smiley


King speaking to an anti-Vietnam war rally at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul on April 27, 1967 (Wikipedia)

When machines and computers, profit motives and property

rights, are considered more important than people, the giant

triplets of racism, extreme poverty, and militarism are

incapable of being conquered.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam” April 4, 1967

Most Americans remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960’s America, as the inspiring orator who spoke of his dream of equality on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

But many know little of how Dr. King evolved and how his vision widened after his “I Have a Dream” speech on that hot August day. By the last year of his life, he was speaking out against the war in Vietnam and institutionalized racism, and he called openly for a radical redistribution of political and economic power.

Award-winning writer and broadcaster Tavis Smiley reminds a new generation of Americans of Dr. King’s tumultuous final days and progressive vision in his poignant new book, Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year (with co-author David Ritz; Little, Brown and Company). For a full understanding of Dr. King, Mr. Smiley urges, Americans must get beyond the stereotype of a civil rights leader and see Dr. King in his full dimension as a human rights advocate with powerful ideas on community, peace and justice.

Mr. Smiley details Dr. King’s activities from his fiery public speech against the Vietnam War at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, to his death in Memphis, Tennessee, a year later to the day. Dr. King made his last journey to Memphis to support a strike of underpaid, mostly black city garbage workers. He saw the campaign in Memphis as a prelude to his final dream, a Poor People's March on Washington to mobilize Americans across racial and class lines to reverse a national cycle of urban conflict and propose an economic bill of rights to end poverty.

In the book, Mr. Smiley recounts how Dr. King’s calls against the war and against materialism and poverty in his last year were denounced from nearly every quarter, even by his past allies including the president, the liberal press, and the black establishment—as well as members of his own organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC]. He was the target of assaults on his character and ideology as the FBI campaign to undermine him intensified and messages of hate and death threats were ordinary occurrences. Despite setback after setback complicated by periods of despondency, Mr. Smiley writes, Dr. King rose in the final year of his life to lead and address the racism, poverty and militarism that threaten, even still, to destroy our democracy.

In writing Death of a King, Mr. Smiley relied on archival and published sources as well as his own interviews with members of Dr. King’s family, including his wife Coretta Scott King and their children; with associates of Dr. King and his inner circle including Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson; and with three leading King biographers: Clayborne Carson, Taylor Branch and David Garrow.

Tavis Smiley is currently the host of the late-night television talk show Tavis Smiley on PBS, as well as The Tavis Smiley Show from Public Radio International (PRI). In addition to his radio and television work, Smiley has written 16 other books, including his memoir, What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America, and with co-author Dr. Cornel West, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. He was won numerous awards and honors for his broadcasting work and writing. Time magazine in 2009 named him one of “The World’s 100 Most Influential People” recognizing him for making “a significant difference in the world.”

Mr. Smiley recently spoke about his book by telephone during his book tour.

Robin Lindley: What inspired you to write about the last year of Dr. King’s life now?

Tavis Smiley: The short answer is that he has been so sanitized and so sterilized and even beatified that we really haven’t yet come to terms with the complexity of his character. We haven’t come to understand who he was.

We really come to know who we are in the dark and difficult days of our lives. If you think you know Dr. King and you have not come to know him in the darkest, most difficult days of his life, then you don’t yet know Dr. King. And the darkest, most difficult days of his life happened to be the very last year of his life.

If you’re stuck in 1963 with “I Have a Dream” and the March on Washington [you don’t know him]. He does live five years after that, and in that period, King evolves and morphs.

This is the story of the last year of his life that most Americans just don’t know when King must have felt that the cosmos had shifted against him. It’s a way of saying we have so deified him in death that we have no idea of how we demonized him in life. We helped to kill King because we abandoned him in the darkest, most difficult days of his life.

To illustrate, imagine a crowd of people and one person is pushed out from the crowd and stands there isolated and alone. It makes it easy to demonize, assault and attack that person and ultimately assassinate him because that person has been so disregarded. When I think about it, we helped to kill King because we abandoned him and isolated him and by isolating him we made it easy to take him out. That’s precisely what happened.

I want people to come to know the King that I know and come to love him for standing in his truth even when everybody turned on him.

Robin Lindley: You’ve mentioned that you discovered Dr. King’s words at age 12 when you were hospitalized. What happened to you and what did you find comforting about Dr. King’s message?

Tavis Smiley: I detail this story in my memoir What I Know for Sure. When I was 12, I was accused of doing something I hadn’t done. My father lost his temper and, rather than have a conversation about it, he snapped and beat me so severely that I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks in traction.

During that time, a member of my church gave me a gift—a box of recordings of MLK. Turns out that Berry Gordy of Motown fame had the good sense to have an engineer follow Dr. King and record many of his speeches. Years later, Berry Gordy put those speeches out on LPs. For whatever reason—I still do not know why—this member of my church gave me this box of King recordings as a gift.

King had long been dead at that time, but he saved my life. He brought me back to life, because of the love in his heart. King was talking to a nation about the power of love. He was saying it’s about the power of love, not the love of power. He was talking to a nation, but he might as well have been talking to a broken-spirited 12-year-old kid, because I heard him saying to me, “Tavis, you’re going to have to find a way to love your way through this situation. Hatred, bitterness and revenge are not options. You have to find a way to love your way through this ordeal.”

So Dr. King really saved my life. He became part of my DNA at age 12. All these years later—I just turned 50 in September—so on the occasion of my fiftieth birthday, I wanted this book out essentially as my love letter to him.

I’m saying to Americans, if you think you love Dr. King and you think you know him and respect him, then wait till you read this book about what happens to him in the last year of his life. He navigates a world where everything is trying to crush him, but he continues to tell his truth, continues to love, continues to serve. He doesn’t get bitter, doesn’t get vengeful. He continues to love people. He doesn’t demonize his haters. He actually feels sorry for his haters. He’s praying for his detractors.

This is the King we should all aspire to be, but it’s a story we don’t know.

Robin Lindley: Your book covers the last year of Dr. King’s life from his April 4, 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech against the war to his death exactly one year later. I don’t think most people realize how radical Dr. King had become with his focus on militarism and economic justice as well as racism.

Tavis Smiley: He gets in trouble with a lot of people in 1967 with that “Beyond Vietnam” speech when he calls America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” And he goes on in the speech to tell America that our democracy is threatened if we don’t do something about the triple threat of racism, poverty and militarism.

People don’t know this story because King is frozen in a frame from 1963 when he talked about his dream. But when this book starts, in 1967, King is saying publically that that dream is now a nightmare for him. In ‘63, he was talking about integration, but by ‘67 is saying that he believes “we integrated into a burning house.” In ‘63, he was hopeful about America and her capacity to have her soul redeemed. He worked assiduously to redeem the soul of America after ‘63.

Many people don’t know this, but one of the last phone calls he made from the Lorraine Motel [in Memphis] where he was assassinated was back to his church in Atlanta, Ebenezer Baptist, to tell them that his sermon for the next Sunday would be entitled “Why America May Go to Hell.” He was not declaring America was going to hell. His thesis was going to be that, if we don’t get serious about the triple threat of racism and poverty and militarism, we are going to lose our democracy and America may go to hell.

When you try to tell people that the guy who made the “I Have a Dream Speech” was going to preach a sermon on “Why America May Go to Hell,” it’s difficult to juxtapose those two ideas because we have no idea of how he evolved in those last five years and how he was still willing to tell his truth a year after that “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

This is a year after all the hell, all the hate, everybody turning against him, and he was still going to stand up and preach a sermon called “Why America May Go to Hell.” That’s a commitment, a radical empathy. That’s the kind of deep and abiding love that most of us are not even capable of—or certainly we may be capable of, but have not achieved. I certainly haven’t.

Robin Lindley: You detail the ferocious reaction to Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, not only from the usual detractors, but from his former allies.

Tavis Smiley: The response to that speech was swift, certain and severe. The media turns on him—the liberal media and the black media turn on him. The White House turns on him. He had worked with Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, but now [Johnson] turns against him.

The last Harris poll taken in Dr. King’s life showed that almost 75 percent of the American people thought he was irrelevant and almost 60 percent of blacks thought he was irrelevant or obsolete or persona non grata.

In the last year of his life, the NAACP came out against him, and Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young of the Urban League. Ralph Bunche, the only other Nobel Peace Prize winning black, came out against him. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the powerful congressman, came out against him. [Supreme Court Justice] Thurgood Marshall had no respect or regard for him.

In the book you’ll read how colleagues and co-workers turned against him. Indeed, in his own organization [the Southern Christian Leadership Conference], he could not get them to support his position against the war in Vietnam. His own board of directors passed a resolution to condemn his position on the Vietnam War. And, as he was working to get the Poor People’s campaign off the ground, he couldn’t get SCLC to work on his campaign.

So he’s facing hell and hate on the inside and on the outside. J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI called him “the most dangerous man in America.” That’s always baffled me because how can you be the most dangerous man in America and the only weapon that you’re using is love? It says something about the potency of love then and even today.

Robin Lindley: Dr. King’s courage was remarkable. From the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott until his death in 1968, not only did he face death threats from rabid racists but the machinery of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was geared to destroy him. Informants on his own staff spied on him for the FBI and his rooms were bugged and phones tapped wherever he traveled. And he was open about his schedule. It’s also stunning that the FBI’s campaign included drafting anti-King editorials that newspapers—such as the Memphis Commercial-Appeal—would run as their own.

Tavis Smiley: Yes, they’re writing editorials. And the FBI also sent Martin Luther King letters encouraging him to commit suicide. They said you’re not getting out of this alive, so why not just kill yourself. It’s ugly.

Robin Lindley: You interviewed Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, a psychiatrist and expert on mood disorders, and he believes Dr. King displayed signs of a bipolar disorder.

Tavis Smiley: He has a book coming out next year with a psychological profile of King that will be quite controversial. He is going to make the point that, while King suffered mania and depression, research shows that people with mania and depression like King have the capacity for a greater sense of radical empathy. So what allowed King to be so radically empathetic and so loving to other people in part was the mania he suffered. That helped me understand how King could be so loving in the face of all that hatred. His mania played a role in that.

Robin Lindley: What do you hope readers take from your account of Dr. King’s last year?

Tavis Smiley: This is the story about Dr. King that people don’t know that they need to know. And again, if you really want to know King and you think you love him and respect him, when you read this story [you see] how he gets up everyday against the odds, and continues to speak an unsettling, inconvenient truth, but a truth that America nonetheless needs to hear.

In many ways we honor him on the cheap. These monuments and holidays and postage stamps and his name on schools and streets are a beautiful thing and he deserves that. But King would much prefer that we deal with the triple threat he spoke of—racism, poverty and militarism—and try to save our democracy. So there’s work to be done.

He’s a shining example of what the best of America looks like. I believe that the future of this democracy is inextricably linked with how seriously we take his legacy and I regard that legacy as one of justice for all; service to others; and a love that liberates people.

I hope this book is a small down payment to thank him first of all for saving my life and, as importantly, showing America what we can be if we get serious about the threats to our democracy.