Tavis Smiley On The Forgotten, Radical Politics Of Martin Luther King Jr.
Tavis Smiley wants us to rethink our perception of Martin Luther King Jr. In his new touring production Death of a King: A Live Theatrical Experience, the prominent talk show host, author, and political commentator is taking that conversation all over the country.
Directed by the Tony-winning director Kenny Leon (Fences, A Raisin in the Sun), with music by Marcus Roberts, the multi-media stage presentation is based on Smiley’s best-selling book Death of A King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year. It tells the story of King during the last and darkest year of his life. Tickets for the show are currently on sale, and the tour will launch on January 15, 2018, King’s birthday, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his death.
Smiley realizes that the real King is more complex — and more interesting — than his mythology has often allowed. He may be beloved for his “I Have a Dream” speech and have a monument in Washington D.C., but in his last year, as his fight for justice and equality began to alienate even many of his liberal supporters, he was hardly a unifying figure.
Consider, for example, his fierce condemnation of the Vietnam War in his April 4, 1967, speech “Beyond Vietnam” at Riverside Church in New York City, which called for a unilateral ceasefire and a demand for a date by which all U.S. troops would be removed from the region.
The speech was highly controversial, with one poll showing 73% disapproved of his anti-war message. An editorial in The Washington Post declared that “many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence,” and even the NAACP disagreed with the choice to blend civil rights with an antiwar message, calling it a “serious tactical mistake.” It also officially cost him his partnership with President Lyndon Johnson, a relationship the war had begun eroding for years. People wondered why the minister and civil rights leader couldn’t stay in his lane, but for King, this new issue was a natural extension of his overall mission.
“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos, without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967
By this time King had also begun to more vocally address poverty as well. As he said to striking Memphis sanitation workers just weeks before his death, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” He had long recognized an “other America” and in early 1968 had begun preparing a “Poor People’s Campaign,” an event that would unite poor communities from across the country to peacefully assemble in Washington D.C. until significant anti-poverty legislation had been passed.
He was also quick to point out the key economic factors at the heart of the racial tensions during the summer of 1967, as 159 riots broke out across the country. While many objected to the property damage and social upheaval, King wrote in a letter to Johnson, “There is no question that the violence and destruction of property must be halted, but Congress has consistently refused to vote a halt the destruction of the lives of negroes in the ghetto… In most cities unemployment of negro youth is greater than the unemployment level of the depression ‘30’s.” He even outlines a dramatic solution — the creation of a federal agency that would provide all working-age Americans with jobs, inspired by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.
It’s an idea outside our mainstream politics today, but it echoed the thoughts in his book of the same year, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, which cited the work of economist John Kenneth Galbraith that such a guaranteed income could cost only $20 billion, or about one year’s worth of fighting in Vietnam. For King, clearly no fan of the war, this was an obvious redistribution.
Could such a plan really solve poverty? The viability of a guaranteed income, to this day, remains unclear. (Even the Clinton campaign was intrigued by the idea, without ever figuring out a perfect way to implement it.) But it shows how ambitious King was willing to go in his vision for an equal society and the level of structural transformation he felt was truly necessary to solve America’s racial divide.
It may seem premature to be discussing King now, with his milestone commemoration still months away, but as Smiley’s message makes clear, King’s legacy isn’t one to merely reflect on one day a year, especially with racism alive and well in this country. The recent election saw major gains for candidates of color in local races, yet scores of people — many of whom have probably celebrated King at some point in their lives — continue to be incensed by the slightest anti-racist activism, as we’ve seen with the NFL protests.
Black unemployment also remains about twice as high as white unemployment, and whites are also more likely to receive business loans, pay lower interest rates, own homes, and even earn higher wages than black people with the same education and experience. It’s clear, fifty years later, King’s work is still as relevant as ever.
Smiley spoke with Rantt to tell us more about his plans for the show and why racism remains our country’s biggest challenge.
What were your goals for this production and this particular retelling of the Dr. King story?
To have folk wrestle with the radical King because he’s so much more than the passive dreamer we’ve turned him into. His message has been sanitized and sterilized, and if America needs anything right now, she needs to hear the truth about the fragility of our democracy.
Martin Luther King Jr. is such a well-known figure, yet people continue to study and examine his life and legacy. What was something new or surprising you learned during your research for your book and this production that you hadn’t previously known?
I think most folk would be surprised to learn that, had he not been killed in Memphis on a Thursday evening and made it back to his Atlanta church for Sunday morning, the sermon he intended to preach was entitled, “Why America May Go To Hell.” Mind you, he did not condemn or consign America to hell but was boldly declaring that if we didn’t get serious about the triple threat facing our nation, we would simply lose our democracy. The triple threat? Racism, poverty, and militarism.
These days, Dr. King tends to be almost unanimously lauded, yet modern activists against racism who hold similar philosophies and use many of his same strategies are frequently challenged or viewed as controversial. Why do you believe this is?
Because, contrary to popular belief, King was not so “unanimously lauded” when he began to tell America about herself, straight no chaser. That’s why it’s important to look at King post the March on Washington, to see how he had changed and, frankly, grown weary of white supremacy. He spoke the truth, but he caught hell and a bullet in the end.
How is racism different today than it was 50 years ago? How is it the same?
Racism is still the most intractable issue in America. Period. De facto. De jure. King believed that racism is prejudice plus power. The contestation of Black humanity and Black dignity is as real as rain, even now.
If someone were to tell you they don’t believe systemic racism is a major factor in people’s lives today, and that success is purely based how hard someone works and whether they “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” what would you tell them?
First, what about the folk who have no boots? But beyond that, we keep asking the wrong question. The question is not are Black folk better off today than they were 50 years ago, the question is how do Black folk measure up against white folk today? In short, Black folk still lag far behind white folk in every leading economic indicator category. That’s real, that’s racial.
What are specific things we can do to continue Dr. King’s work today?
We can honor his life, by living his legacy: justice for all, service to others, and a Love that liberates people.
Tickets for the tour of Death of a King are currently on sale. A preview of the show is available below.