- January 18, 2016 in Columnists
King biography is a must-read
This column originally ran on February 12, 2015 in the Fairfield Daily Republic. I’ve slightly modified it for iPinion.
I love biographies because they peel back the curtain and show us things we’ve never seen about people we think we know. Such was the case last year during Black History Month when I read Tavis Smiley’s “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year.”
The book begins on April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City with King delivering a major anti-Vietnam War speech calling the United States the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” In the aftermath, the NAACP, as well as other black leaders, politicians and the editorial boards of 168 newspapers including The Washington Post and The New York Times criticized King. Some thought it an insult to President Lyndon Johnson, a misstep and that King had strayed from his lane. King fell off Gallup’s top 10 list of most admired Americans and donations to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference dried up.
King in 1967-68 was in a far different position than the highs of the 1963 March on Washington, the Nobel Peace Prize or the signing of landmark civil rights legislation. In the late 1960s, nonviolence had given way to self-defense, violence and riots. Groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panthers and leaders like Stokeley Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were deemed more relevant than King and the SCLC, especially by young blacks. “Black power” was the call to action for young blacks tired of institutionalized discrimination, unemployment and police brutality.
Smiley reports that King’s inner circle reflected the same bickering and criticism. King was pushing for a Poor People’s Campaign of hundreds of thousands of poor Americans from all races converging on D.C. and staying there, not unlike Occupy Wall Street, for as long as it took for the government to address poverty and income inequality. Andrew Young, James Bevel, Jesse Jackson and others wanted to go in a different direction.
In March 1968, King led a march through Memphis to protest unsafe working conditions and lousy pay for city sanitation workers. For the first time, a nonviolent protest led by King turned violent. King was spirited away by aides as fires raged and stores were looted. Reading it, one cannot help but think of Ferguson, Missouri. Critics claimed King had instigated the violence, even though, like with Ferguson, most of the protesters were peaceful.
Smiley refers to King by the nickname his closest friends called him, “Doc.” At first, it seemed pretentious, giving the reader an unearned familiarity with Dr. King. But as the book continued, I understood the brilliance of it. It sucks the reader in so King feels like a real person instead of a larger-than-life caricature.
Smiley shows us a stressed and depressed King criss-crossing the nation listening to the dictates of his conscience. But King is also obsessed with the thought he would die soon. The book grows more oppressive with every chapter as every page turn brings King closer to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the site of his assassination.
His martyrdom paved over his struggling final years and made King an iconic figure for the ages. But there was real man behind the myths and revisionism so often seen when one hears of MLK today. This is a Martin Luther King Jr. that most people probably don’t know. It’s a long way from “I have a dream” and essential to understanding who he was. I invite you to read Smiley’s book and peek behind the curtain at who Martin Luther King Jr. was in those final months and days. I’m confident you will respect him even more.
Maya Spier Stiles North
- January 19, 2016 at 6:38 pm