BALTIMORE – Tavis Smiley wants America to know that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is much more than the man who stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave the “I Have a Dream” speech.
That is why he stopped by the Baltimore Book Festival last week to promote his new book, Death of a King. In it, Smiley paints a picture of a leader who had been abandoned by virtually everyone who had at one time embraced him.
“In that last year of his life…everybody and everything turns on him: The media turns on him, the government turns even more so against him – they were always against him— the White House turns on him,” Smiley said.
Even among his own people, Smiley said, King was without a strong following. Older, more established Blacks resented King because he challenged President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War. Younger Blacks were beginning to favor more militant leaders like Stokely Carmichael.
King had even fallen out of the graces of Maryland native Thurgood Marshall, the talk show host claimed.
“There’s some quotes in this book from Thurgood Marshall that people won’t even believe – he really couldn’t stand Dr. King,” Smiley said.
Smiley said he thinks the book is so important because it’s time to fill in the gaps on the leader that most Americans are taught about in history class.
“He’s been so sanitized and so sterilized that we really don’t know who he really was. Everybody thinks ‘I have a dream’ and that’s really all they know,” the author said. “Everywhere I go, people are blown away that they didn’t know this part of his life. This story runs counter to the narrative that we want to have of Dr. King.”
Smiley said he also believes that now is the time to reexamine the things that King was saying all those years ago and admits that, ultimately, he was right.
One speech that got King in a lot of trouble was one that blasted the nation’s war efforts in Vietnam. In it, King called America the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. And that wasn’t all he said.
“He also talked about what he calls the triple threat facing America. The triple threat of racism, poverty and militarism. So what do we see in Ferguson, Mo., all these years later? Racism, poverty and militarism. I think Martin was right then and he’s right now.”
In a way, Smiley has been preparing for this book since he was 12 years old. That was when, he said, a terrible beating put him in the hospital and left him a very angry person. A church deacon gave him a box of recordings of King’s speeches.
“I could hear him saying to me that this situation that I was in…that I was going to have to love my way through it. Hatred and bitterness and revenge were not really an option. So he spoke to me in ways that kind of saved my life really. He had long since been dead but he kind of brought me back to life.”
And, as someone who has faced backlash over his sometimes critical words about the Obama administration, can Smiley identify with the anger that he says King faced in the later years of his life? Absolutely.
“I figured that if they did this to Dr. King then there’s no reason that I should think that people aren’t going to disagree with me,” Smiley said “In some ways, there’s been a lot of pushback from some people who can’t handle my critique of the president, my attempt to hold him accountable – even though I’ve done that for every president, not just him. Some Negroes have just lost their mind about me trying to hold Obama accountable. So, I figure if they did it to Martin, I ain’t got a prayer.”
Smiley said that he works hard every day to speak his truth in love – something he says that everyone has to do. It’s his job to speak what he feels is right and, as with King, let history be the final judge.
“I don’t have a monopoly on the truth. I could be wrong. I don’t think I am, but I could be,” he said.
Finally, Smiley talked about his run on the ABC show “Dancing with the Stars.” Smiley was the second contestant eliminated.
“I turned 50 earlier this month. I figured that before I turned 50 I was going to do one last foolish thing. One stupid, crazy thing out of my box,” he said. “I never took dancing lessons. I never learned how to do the cha-cha or foxtrot.”
He said that his busy schedule and book tour made it hard to do as well as he wanted to do.
“My competitors on the show had about 35 to 40 hours a week minimum to rehearse. I got eight to 10 hours a week squeezed in between interviews and book signings,” he said. “I’m not hating, I’m just saying that’s just the reality of it. You cannot perfect the fox trot or the cha-cha or the mambo or the tango, you can’t perfect that with eight or 10 hours a week. You’ve gotta practice, and I just didn’t have the time.”