Column: Smiley’s “Death of a King”

‘Death of a King’ is Lively, Relevant Today

Pursuant of my goal of reading 50 books annually, I just finished “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year” by Tavis Smiley that will be released Tuesday (Sept. 9) but which I got my hands on early.MLK

It is not only the most remarkable of the 33 books I have read to date in 2014, it ranks among the best I have read in many years. It is so riveting and enlightening I read it twice in one week.

In truth, I feel I have “read” it three times because I had the great privilege of initially listening to an audio-book version, if you will, during a two-hour lunch with Smiley at a Caribbean café. It was like hearing a one-on-one lecture about Abraham Lincoln from Doris Kearns Goodwin, or David McCullough discussing the year 1776 over beers.

Smiley is a similar scholar of note on King. As he writes in the Introduction: “During the most difficult period of my childhood, a time when I had fallen into deep despair, (King’s) spirit entered my soul and excited my imagination. I recognized the rhythms of his rhetorical passion as more than hypnotic: I knew they were righteous. As a result of their disturbing truths, I became a lifelong student of his work as a minister, advocate, and writer. His call to radical democracy through redemptive love resonated with me on a profound level.”

In “Death of a King,” Smiley profoundly chronicles from April 4, 1967, when King delivers an impassioned speech opposing the Vietnam War, to his assassination on April 4, 1968. The tumult of these final 365 days is truly remarkable.

But what I found most remarkable is that 46 years later this story is eerily relevant with police shootings of African-American men, peaceful demonstrations and riots; poverty, racial inequalities in the justice system, and militarism dominating the headlines.

Here, in King’s own words from “Death of a King,” are some examples that ring loudly still:

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”


“You can’t blame nonviolent demonstrators who are demonstrating for their constitutional rights when violence erupts.”


“In the final analysis a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear – it has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro has worsened over the last twenty years, that the promises of justice and equality have not been met, and that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”


“We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together.”


“I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world.”


“True compassion is not flipping a coin to a beggar. It comes to seeing that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”


“The lives, the incomes, the well-being of poor people everywhere in America are plundered by our economic system.”


“We must all learn to live together as brothers in this country or we’re going to perish together as fools.”


“We may be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice. I have not lost hope …”


Tavis Smiley

Tavis Smiley

Smiley concluded our lunch the same way he does “Death of a King,” sharing the goose-bump-inducing eulogy King delivered in 1965 for Reverend James Joseph Reeb, a white man who joined the Civil Rights Movement and was then murdered because of it.

King’s words would prove prescient of his own death, as he asked about Reeb’s murder: “When we move from WHO to WHAT, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows.”

It is an evocation that remains relevant in American life today.

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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at

Wooden-&-Me-cover-mock-upCheck out my new memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece”

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