The third Monday in January is when America commemorates the King holiday. It is a strange phenomenon, uniquely American in that we honor heroes in a manner that causes the least amount of discomfort.
Though counterintuitive, it is to bemoan Hollywood for historical inaccuracies, but opt for the Hollywood version to pacify reality.
How does this relate to Martin Luther King? According to theologian and King aide the late Vincent Harding, the systematic whitewashing of King is to create a "gentle, nonabrasive hero whose recorded speeches can be used as inspirational resources for rocking our memories to sleep."
If this is how one prefers to remember the King legacy, they should not read Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Year, written by Tavis Smiley with David Ritz.
It is a narrative that begins on April 4, 1967, with King delivering his historic speech at Riverside Church in opposition to the war in Vietnam and concludes exactly one year later as he is assassinated on a balcony in Memphis.
In the last year of his life, King is met with myriad opposition. A strange coalition comprising of President Lyndon Johnson, King's staff, the press, a portion of black America, liberal whites, even many of his closest allies question his leadership and relevance.
Smiley presents King in his final year, whose national influence is in question, smokes and drinks, unable to sleep, family life strained, mental and physical health challenged, organizational strife, while under constant surveillance by the FBI
During that time, however, King remained myopically focused on poverty, embracing a frantic pace. That makes it understandable that, according to the autopsy, the 39-year-old King had the heart comparable to a 60-year-old man.
It is the flawed, but humanized King that Smiley presents who stands taller, whose accomplishments seem greater than the idealistic dreamer who moonlights today as a spokesperson for several Fortune 500 companies.
One whose words are often and conveniently taken out of context by ambitious politicians who seek to hide behind the non abrasive King, who is suitable for framing but offers no transformative value.
At every turn, with the benefit of hindsight, the reader is compelled to tell King to retire, accept the offer to pastor the church in Great Britain, become president of a university, take care of Coretta and the children, but for god's sake, don't go to Memphis!
But King does go to Memphis. He is endowed by a formal vow to nonviolence.
"I, Martin Luther King, take thee, non-violence to be my wedded wife, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer...in sickness and in health, until death do us part."
Smiley chronicles King's final year as a circuitous 365-day journey that views the Vietnam conflict as the greatest impediment to addressing racism and poverty in America.
By 1967, the greatness of King that America honors today was largely in his rearview mirror. Smiley's King stands on the isolated but prophetic island that takes the long view that is ultimately vindicated posthumously by time.
This is an important work that, if taken seriously can transform the current narrative into an authentic one if King is to truly be the nation's moral conscious.
Death of a King is further evidence that the man who lived is far removed from the character we honor annually. Smiley has done an excellent job by providing added context as to the reasons the sobering poem by Carl Wendell Hines remains tragically valid.
"Now that he is safely dead,
Let us praise him,
Build monuments to his glory,
Sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make such convenient heroes:
They cannot rise to challenge the images
We would fashion from their lives.
And besides, it is easier to build monuments
Than to make a better world.
So, now that he is safely dead
We, with eased consciences will teach our children
That he was a great man...
Knowing that the cause for which he lived...
is still a cause.
And the dream for which he died...
is still a dream....a dead man's dream.
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