Tavis Smiley is the host and managing editor of “Tavis Smiley on PBS,” and “The Tavis Smiley Show” from Public Radio International. He is also the author of 16 best-selling books. Here, he talks about his latest opus, “Death of a King.”
Kam Williams: Hi Tavis, thanks for the time, brother.
Tavis Smiley: Always nice to speak with you, Kam.
KW: I have lots of questions for you from readers. Attorney Bernadette Beekman says: I know that your book deals with the last year of King’s life when the tide was turning against him, such as the Black Panthers, Ralph Bunche, and others in the movement. Now, Dr. King is viewed as a martyr. Was it difficult for those still living to now speak negatively about King?
TS: Good question, Bernadette. Now that he is a dead martyr, rarely do people speak negatively of him. My point is that it’s easy to celebrate and applaud dead martyrs. The problem is that when King was here and in our faces, and talking about inconvenient truths, like what he called the triple threat facing our democracy–racism, poverty and militarism—everybody turned on him. Yet, 50 years after his assassination, what do we see when we look at Ferguson, Missouri? Racism, poverty and militarism! We have deified King in death, so it’s easy for people to say nice things about him now. But in life, we demonized him.
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles says: An historical biography of the last year of Dr. King’s life, no matter how beautiful a tribute, is it really what we need to read now to get it right?
TS: Absolutely! The answer’s “Yes,” because we come to know who we really are in life during the dark and difficult and desolate days of our journey. If you think you respect and revere Dr. King, wait ‘til you read this book. You’re going to feel that way even more so afterwards, because you’ll get to see how he navigated the most difficult period of his life, the last year of his life when everybody turned against him. That’s what fascinates me about him. After reading this book, you’ll have a different appreciation of Dr. King. It’s important to see him in his full complexity, and be honest about the fact that we help to kill King because we abandoned him. And once we abandoned him, we isolated him, which made it easy for someone to assassinate him. It was a three-step process.
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier asks: Do you have any interest in entering politics?
TS: Let me put it like this, “N, O, NO!” And put that in caps.
KW: Patricia says: You quote Dr. King asserting that “Our nation is sick with racism, sick with militarism, sick with a system that perpetuates poverty.” If Dr. King were still alive, what do you think his assessment of present-day America would be?
TS: Excellent question! He’d pick up right where he left off, talking about that triple threat of racism, poverty and militarism. Even in the era of the first black president, racism is still the most intractable issue in this country. Regarding poverty, half of all Americans are either in or near poverty. Poverty is certainly worse for African-Americans now than it was during King’s lifetime. And there’s a highway into poverty, but barely a sidewalk out. This is not a skill problem, it’s a will problem, and King would be challenging us about the lack of our will to eradicate poverty. On militarism, the growth of the Military-Industrial Complex has been exponential since his assassination. If he were here now, he’d have a strong critique of the American empire’s militaristic approach to the world. And frankly, he’d have a strong critique of the Obama administration on its use of drones.
KW: Chandra McQueen says: This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Do you think Obama is as deserving of his?
TS: I want to be as charitable as I can be, here. It’s been very difficult, sometimes heartbreaking to watch this war President with a Nobel Peace Prize, navigate his presidency.
KW: Have you considered having some of Smiley Books translated into other languages?
TS: We’ve translated some, but we could do more.
KW: Vassar professor Mia Mask asks: What’s up with your campaign against Obama? Isn’t it somewhat self-serving? What, if anything, have you and Cornel West accomplished with your public criticism of the President?
TS: I am not engineering a campaign against Obama. My work and witness is about holding our leaders accountable.
KW: Kyle Moore asks: What has to be done to change to the political stalemate we see in Washington?
TS: We need to elect leaders who understand that leadership is about loving and serving people, not about self-advancement.
KW: Thanks for another great interview, Tavis.
TS: Thank you, Kam. I look forward to reading it.
To order a copy of Death of a King, visit: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0316332763/ref%3dnosim/thslfofire-20