Why America may go to hell…
Death Of A King : the real story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jn.’rs final year by Tavis Smiley, is an intimate portrait of a man out of his depth, rushing to catch up with the divisions in a fragmenting society. Smiley reveres King and is unapologetic about it, but also reveals his hero as all too human. Smiley often puts himself in King’s mind and feels free to express the man’s noble emotions, but is unafraid to reveal his foibles. Smiley reveals King as not only a mighty fighter and a martyr for civil rights, but as a sinner, wracked by guilt over his infidelities, often beset by doubts over the direction he was taking.
Smiley’s book is a brave, absorbing and moving portrait of the last frenetic 365 days in the life of a legendary and adored champion of the cause of equality and non-violence, in an era when violence and hatred seemed to be running out of control.
In a year when thousands of National Guardsmen, accompanied by tanks, were on the streets of Newark and Detroit, in the USA, and the brutal war in Vietnam was raging, King was also beset on all sides. Increasingly seen as an Uncle Tom by the younger, more militant generation, attacked by former allies for “splitting” the civil rights movement through his condemnation of the Vietnam War, King wrestled with depression, travelled endlessly, fought tirelessly for his cause, even as the cause threatened to slip out of his grasp.
While young radical black leaders wore African dashikis, leather jackets, berets and afros, King stuck to his conservative black suits and ties…with gallows humour, he called this style “coffin–ready.” He continued to refer to “Negroes,” and to preach in a Christian manner, his message of non-violence and brotherly love contrasting with the fiery words of the younger leaders, such as Stokely Charmicael, who denounced national conscription for Vietnam; “The draft is white people sending black people to make war on yellow people in order to defend the land they stole from red people.”
Today, when many are dismayed by the rise and rise of the demagogic Donald Trump, we can perhaps reflect that Trump’s ascendancy has been mainly brought about by insider dealing and outright corruption in Washington. Back in 1967–68, with American cities in flames, King “…excoriated Congress for moral degradation.” How much has changed?
I’d recommend Death Of A King highly. It reads more like a novel than a biography…it’s a grim subject with a tragic outcome, but an excellent and enlightening read.
PS: Immediately after King’s death, it was revealed that he had intended to preach at his old church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta Georgia, the following Sunday. The subject of the undelivered sermon: Why America may go to hell.
Reviewed by Keith Smith