MLK bio strongest when in his own words
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