MLK bio strong­est when in his own words

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by John K. Collins

TAVIS Smi­ley, the af­fa­ble TV and ra­dio in­ter­viewer, along with cowriter David Ritz, has writ­ten an ac­count of Dr. Martin Luther King’s last year that is, un­for­tu­nately, a mile wide and an inch deep. Un­for­tu­nate be­cause Smi­ley’s ob­jec­tive is ad­mirable — to bring to life the es­sen­tial truths about King “be­fore they are un­re­mem­bered and ir­recov­er­able.” How­ever, his truths have al­ready been told many times, most no­tably in books by Tay­lor Branch, David J. Gar­row and Mar­shall Frady. Us­ing the present tense to cre­ate dra­matic im­me­di­acy, Smi­ley and Ritz strive to em­bel­lish their oft-told tale by wrap­ping it in a style rem­i­nis­cent of the blues, and the ca­dences of African-Amer­i­can preach­ing. “This is Sun­day, the Lord’s Day. “But here comes Mon­day. For good rea­son, they call it stormy Mon­day, and Tues­day’s just as bad.” As well as pur­port­ing to read King’s mind, Smi­ley refers to him as “Doc,” the way his best friends ad­dressed him. This de­vice would hardly have ap­pealed to King, who was al­ways, in pub­lic, con­scious of his dig­nity. “The day is done. “The march is done. “Doc’s world has come un­done.” Smi­ley be­gins the book with King’s con­tro­ver­sial anti-Viet­nam War speech at River­side Church in New York in April 1967 and ends it 12 months later when he is as­sas­si­nated at the Lor­raine Mo­tel in Mem­phis, Tenn. In those 12 months King, as Smi­ley rightly notes, en­dured a liv­ing hell but rose to moral great­ness. Too bad Smi­ley al­lows what he is say­ing to be over­whelmed by how he is say­ing it. At River­side, King called for the U.S. to with­draw from Viet­nam. He preached with the fierce­ness of an Old Tes­ta­ment prophet: “I could never again raise my voice against the vi­o­lence of the op­pressed in the ghet­tos with­out hav­ing first spo­ken clearly to the great­est pur­veyor of vi­o­lence in the world to­day — my own gov­ern­ment.” As the sum­mer ad­vanced, he was driven by his belief that “man’s sur­vival is de­pen­dent upon man’s abil­ity to solve the prob­lems of racial in­jus­tice, poverty and war.” Be­liev­ing a so­cial revo­lu­tion was needed, he be­gan to or­ga­nize a poor peo­ple’s march on Wash­ing­ton. King’s po­si­tions on war and poverty made him one of the most un­pop­u­lar pub­lic fig­ures in Amer­ica. On top of its re­sent­ment of the civil rights move­ment, most of white Amer­ica now re­viled him for what it saw as a lack of pa­tri­o­tism. African-Amer­i­can mil­i­tants (in­clud­ing some of his friends) scorned him for what they saw as de-em­pha­siz­ing the civil rights move­ment for poverty in gen­eral, as well as for his in­sis­tence on non-vi­o­lence over armed re­sis­tance. Nev­er­the­less, King’s Christian prin­ci­ples gave him the courage to con­tinue fight­ing against in­equal­ity, war and un­fet­tered cap­i­tal­ism. Strangely, per­haps be­cause the style is more suited to eu­logy than biog­ra­phy, de­scrip­tions of the FBI’s out­rages seem muted. Among the great­est abuses of power in Amer­ica must be the se­cret war J. Edgar Hoover waged against King on be­half of the state. The best parts of Death of a King are the many ex­am­ples of King’s up­lift­ing or­a­tory. John K. Collins is a re­tired Man­i­toba

Teach­ers’ So­ci­ety ne­go­tia­tor.

Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Fi­nal Year

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