Monday, November 3, 2014


I recently finished reading the book, Death of a King:  The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King's Final Year, by Tavis Smiley with David Ritz.
This is a powerful book but not one to read when you're down.  Though it is brief and well-written, I found I had to chew on it in small bites and I was thankful that it was composed in brief chapters.  There are other, fuller biographies of Dr. King, which I would recommend, such as David Garrow's Bearing the Cross or Taylor Branch's 3-volume set subtitled America in the King Years.  These books will fill in much of what we need to know about Dr. King's life and the Civil Rights' movement in which he was involved.

But this book is different; it is as the title tells us, only concerned with the year preceding Dr. King's assassination.  It does not delve into the details of the movement and its surrounding politics.  It tells little about the rival factions in the movement.  It tells us nothing about Dr. King's assassin.

Smiley is concerned rather with Dr. King himself (whom he refers to as "Doc"), as much as possible getting inside his head.  He uses memoirs and personal interviews with Dr. King's associates and friends.  He delves into his speeches and writings which reveal much about the man.  Smiley does an excellent job; the reader can feel the author's empathy.  Clearly, Dr. King is his hero, yet he is not afraid to portray him warts and all.

The story begins on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before the assassination, with King's "dramatic and controversial speech in impassioned opposition to the Vietnam War" (page 5 - Smiley quotes portions of this and other speeches throughout the book.)

Though Dr. King had spoken against the war before his April 4th speech, it was this speech that marked his final break with the Johnson administration.  One of the great tragedies of our time was the break between these two men.  Lyndon Johnson and Martin King had both previously worked tirelessly together on Civil Rights' legislation.  Lyndon Johnson was and probably still should be regarded as the President who did the most for Civil Rights since Abraham Lincoln.  But his involvement in and escalation of what is perceived by many as a senseless war, drew a shadow over what he had accomplished.

Dr. King saw the war as most wars are, a rich man's war fought by poor men.  The draft took a disproportionate number of those same African-Americans for whom Dr. King - and President Johnson - had fought hard to bring into full rights in the mainstream of America.

And so the man who was recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize was now perceived by many Americans as a traitor, along with others in the Peace Movement.  As Dr. King said, speaking of the nation's attitude toward Muhammad Ali, "There is a very dangerous development in the nation to equate dissent with disloyalty" (page 50).  There were many in the Civil Rights' movement at this time, though who were still supportive of the war, so Dr. King found himself out of step with many of his fellow workers.

Add to this the fact that Dr. King's non-violent path of civil disobedience was perceived by many younger people in the Civil Rights' movement, as being too slow and ineffective.  The more radical Black Power movement was coming to the fore.  And so his following was being shrunk from many directions. All of this on top of the white racism and hatred that he continually experienced.

Dr. King was becoming more concerned not simply with matters of race but also of poverty.  He spent much of this final year attempting to organize a "Poor Peoples' March" on Washington.  And there was the Sanitation Workers' strike in Memphis which he was working in support of.

King seemed to be sliding deep into depression and like many, this drove him into greater activity.  We find him flying from city to city, speaking and organizing.  He appeared exhausted emotionally and physically when he arrived in Memphis.

The story ends with tragic simplicity:
          "Then a shot rings out.
          The bullet finds its mark,
          Doc falls.
          At age thirty-nine, his life on earth ends."

The epilogue contains a eulogy that had been delivered earlier by Dr. King for Joseph Reeb, a murdered white civil rights' worker.  Smiley apparently feels it is a fit tribute to the man who gave it.  And we the readers do so as well.

Tavis Smiley is a well-known host of both PBS and Public Radio programs, as well as a prolific author.  His empathy, even love, for the man who is his subject is clear throughout the book.  He was less than four years old when Dr. King was murdered and so his knowledge is all second hand, yet it feels as though he has known him personally.

I am ashamed to confess that as a white evangelical Christian living in the north, I had little interest in or sympathy with Dr. King and all he was accomplishing during his brief life and ministry.  It was only after I moved south to Houston, TX in 1966 that I even began to understand.

At the time of Dr. King's assassination I was working in the engineering department of a large oil tool company.  As I recall, there were well over 100 men in one huge room (all white, of course).  When news of the assassination was heard, there was celebration.  No work was done for much of the day.  I had not witnessed such "joy" since Japan surrendered after WWII!  Dr. King's death was regarded by all - at least those who were vocal - as some sort of victory.  Of course, this was mixed with "righteous indignation" at those "n____s" who rioted afterward.

Though I didn't speak up, I realized that as a follower of Jesus, I was on a different side than my co-workers, even though many of them also claimed to be Christians.  This was not my first epiphany, but it surely was the strongest.  I believe that many white evangelicals of my day, while we may not have seen ourselves as racists, were simply indifferent as to how racism - even our passive racism - is in total contradiction to the life and teachings of Christ.  I fear this is still a lingering problem.

I strongly recommend this book.  Read it with a copy nearby of A Testament of Hope - the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington.  I'd also recommend one or both of the biographies mentioned above.


Sherry Ball Schoenfeldt said...

I never heard the personal story at the end before.
Looks like I have some more books to borrow from you.

John Kulp said...

Thanks for posting this Bill. I have probably sent similar responses to previous posts, but at my age I can't remember..... ;-)

I came from the North to attend a Christian College in the South during this time. In a Chapel service a few days after Dr. King's assassination someone read a pre-prepared list of presidential candidates for an upcoming student mock election looking toward the Fall. Dr. King was dead, but his name was still on the list. When his name was read a chorus of spontaneous laughter arose from about a third of the chapel audience. I loved what Dr. King stood for and I was shocked and hurt, and I stood alone and walked the long aisle out of the service in the large cathedral.

For that very minor protest, some students later called me names that don't need to be repeated here. Friends told me that I had "made a fool of myself" by walking out in protest. Those who may have understood what I did were silent. As you know Bill, it's not easy to stand against the tide of group opinion. People are more comfortable with lemmings who will follow the group without thinking, or those who at lease stay silent.

In my view, the "Manhattan Declaration" of 2009 attempted to re-write history and pretend that evangelicals were on the right side on this issue in the 60's. From my personal experience the vast majority of white evangelicals of the 50's and 60's were at best silent and at worst complicit in racism. Contrition would be a more biblical response than denial.