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.”
Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year
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Hardcover: 288 pages Little, Brown and Company (September 9, 2014)
Kam Williams: Hi Tavis, thanks for the time, brother.
Tavis Smiley: Always nice to speak with you, Kam.
KW: 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 also says: I think this is one of your best books. I just finished reading it. I found your discussion of Coretta Scott King’s influence on her husband very interesting, as well as her contributions as an activist, and her criticism of the Civil Rights Movement’s lack of focus, and the roles played by women in combat. About your research process: Did you make trips to Atlanta, Montgomery, the Lorraine Motel and other places in Memphis?
TS: Yes, all of the above. The short answer is I traveled extensively, I interviewed extensively, and I researched extensively. Still, I couldn’t have done this book had it none been for the work of Dr. King’s three principal biographers: Taylor Branch, David Garrow and Clayborne Carson. Those guys did the heavy lifting which made it easier for me to do a book just focusing on his final year. As for Coretta, she’s really an unsung heroine. I’m glad that Patricia took away the critical role that Coretta played not only in Dr. King’s life, but in the Movement. I’m glad that we were able to weave that into the narrative effectively.
KW: AALBC.com’s Publisher Troy Johnson asks: What happened with the R. Kelly book project?
TS: We published the book, but for any number of reasons, it didn’t sell enough to make the best-seller list. He was afforded an opportunity to tell his story, and the marketplace decided.
KW: Troy also says: I really enjoyed, and now miss, the Smiley and West radio program. Why was it cancelled? Any plans for a similar program in the future?
TS: It wasn’t canceled. Dr. West and I decided to step away from it, primarily because we both just have so many things going on. We’re both very busy people.
KW: Troy would like to know: What are the future plans of Smiley Books?
TS: We’re going to continue to publish books we think need to be read.
KW: Film critic Armond White simply asks: Why?
TS: Great question, Armond. I ask that myself everyday.
KW: Thanks for another great interview, Tavis.
TS: Thank you, Kam. I look forward to reading it.
Tavis Smiley AALBC.com Author Profile
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State of the Black Union 2009 Coverage
State of the Black Union 2008 Coverage