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What Would Dr. King Do? As U.S. Moves to Bomb Syria, Tavis Smiley on MLK’s Antiwar Legacy

StorySeptember 11, 2014
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What would Dr. Martin Luther King do? As debate continues over U.S. plans to launch airstrikes in Syria, we look at the final year of King’s life when he became a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy and the Vietnam War, calling his government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” We speak to public TV and radio broadcaster Tavis Smiley, author of the new book, “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What would Dr. Martin Luther King do? As debate continues over the expansion of another U.S. military operation in the Middle East, we turn to look at the final year of King’s life, when he became a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy in the Vietnam War, calling the United States, quote, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Dr. Martin Luther King speaking on April 4th, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York, explaining why he opposed the war in Vietnam. The speech was delivered exactly a year to the day before King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4th, 1968.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by public television and radio broadcaster Tavis Smiley. He has a new book out this week, Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year. You can read its introduction and first chapter at democracynow.org.

Tavis, welcome back to Democracy Now! What a week to come out with this book.

TAVIS SMILEY: Amy and Juan, good to be back, first of all. Thanks for the invitation.

It is interesting, not just a week, but today, as we sit here for this conversation on the 13th anniversary of 9/11. I have been thinking for the last 48 hours, knowing that this day would come, what King would be saying on this particular day. And his heart would certainly bleed for those persons who lost—those fellow citizens who lost their lives in this great city 13 years ago, no doubt about that, because he abhorred violence anywhere in the world. He said many times that it’s either nonviolent co-existence or violent co-annihilation. And so, he was against violence anywhere, which is why he came out against the war in Vietnam, because he was sitting at breakfast one day, eating, and he was looking at a magazine and saw the pictures of these children in Vietnam who had been napalmed to death, and he just stopped eating. And one of his aides says, “Doc, what’s wrong? Does the food not taste good?” He says, “This food doesn’t taste good, nor will anything else I ever eat, if I don’t commit myself to do something about the violence that’s being perpetrated on these young children in Vietnam.” So he was against violence here, he was against violence there.

And I’ve often wondered what that bust of Martin King in the Oval Office must be whispering to President Obama late at night as he’s making these kinds of plans. Everybody quotes Martin. It’s almost become pablum and platitude to quote him every time we have a public gathering. But to really wrestle with the subversiveness of his truth about that triple threat that he talked about, Amy—racism, poverty and militarism? What did we see on display in Ferguson a few weeks ago? Racism, poverty and militarism. And now here we are again, on—what is the irony that on 9/11 the headline in every major paper in this country is that here we go again? And King would just be—he’d have some issues with that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’ve often talked on this show about that last year of his life, when he really became not so much a hero for the establishment of the country at the time. But you go behind the scenes talking about what it was for him—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —how he reached the decision first. You start the book right on—just before his speech at Riverside Church, and then you go through that year.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about your decision to do that, after all these other books that have come out about Dr. King in the past?

TAVIS SMILEY: Sure. Glad you raised that, Juan. It’s always the first question: Why another book about Dr. King? Because this one has not been written before, to your point that it focuses just on that last year, April 4, '67, when he gives that speech, to April 4, ’68, a year to the day later, and what happens to Martin in that last year, what kind of person is he really, when all this hell and hate is being directed at him. So let me just say very quickly that this book is impossible without the heavy lifting that's already been done by his three principal biographers, Taylor Branch, David Garrow and Clayborne Carson. I thank them all the time, because they’ve done the real work here. But no book has ever focused just on this last year, because, for me, I think it’s the case that whether you’re talking to Amy or Juan or Tavis or anybody else, any human being, we come to know who we really are in the most difficult and dark days of our lives. And for King, that happened to be the last year of his life.

So if you think you know Dr. King and you don’t know what happened to him in the last year, then you really don’t know Martin, because, to your question, Juan, what happens is, when he comes out against that war and starts talking, Amy, about a Poor People’s Campaign—as long as Martin was talking about civil rights, he was OK. “But, Negro, we didn’t give you license to talk about foreign policy. We didn’t give you license to talk about federal budget priorities.” And Martin was saying that war is the enemy of the poor, and that the bombs that you’re dropping in Vietnam are landing in the ghettos and barrios of American cities. And for saying that, for being so vocal about that, what happens, Juan? The White House turns on him. He’s worked with Lyndon Johnson to get the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act passed. But now Johnson is after him. So the White House turns on him, number one. The media turns on him. When you read—you all know this stuff; I feel like I’m telling you stuff you already know—but when you read what The New York—almost 50 years after his death, you read what The New York—the liberal New York Times said about him, what the liberal Washington Post said about him, what Time magazine said about him, it’s embarrassing to read what they said about Martin when he came out against the war in Vietnam all these years later. So the media turns on him. First the White House, then the media. And I might add, the black media turned on Martin King. And then white America turned on him.

The last poll in his life, the Harris Poll, found that nearly three-quarters of the American people, 75 percent, thought that Martin was irrelevant. Get this. Martin King dies with approval ratings or disapproval ratings about the same as George Bush when he left the White House. That’s how bad his numbers were, believe it or not. So, white America turns on him. And hold onto your hat, almost 60 percent of black folk in the country thought he was persona non grata. And so, in his own lifetime, that last year, he really didn’t have a constituency. He couldn’t get his own organization, SCLC, to support him the way he wanted on the Poor People’s Campaign. So, everybody turns on him, and he has to navigate that until he died.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet he stuck to his guns.

TAVIS SMILEY: Oh, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: Or I don’t actually want to use that analogy there, sticking to his guns, but he was adamant.

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah, yeah. He stood in his truth.



AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to a clip from “Beyond Vietnam.”

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” And they ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home. And 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.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. King a year to the day before he was gunned down in Memphis. This was at Riverside Church, April 4th, 1967. So, his organization in this last year is in financial trouble. People are turning against him. And what were his conversations?

TAVIS SMILEY: He was despondent. We don’t shy away from this in the text. He was despondent. He was depressed. There were times he was admitted to the hospital for what they said was exhaustion. And it was exhaustion, but there was a certain mania that he was enduring, as well, because, again, you’ve got everybody against you, and on top of that, you’re getting death threats every day. And on top of that, he could feel, and told the folk around him he could feel, the death angel hovering around him. He knew there was a bullet out there with his name on it. And so, how do you get up every day and try to tell your truth, when everything, everybody—when it appears even that the cosmos has sort of shifted against you, but you have to speak the truth and stay with the truth and stand in the truth? That’s a very difficult thing to do for most of us, but King, to Amy’s point earlier, never wavered. And the most beautiful part of this book is to see somebody who, when everything is coming at him, still tells the truth. And we don’t have leaders these days who love us enough always to tell us the truth.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you mention in the book that he was inspired by another legendary figure who was at the nadir of his life and career at the time, Muhammad Ali, and how Ali had just been banned from boxing and basically lost all of his income because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam. But yet, King admired his courage.

TAVIS SMILEY: He indeed admired his courage and told him so; admired his courage, admired the courage of Eartha Kitt, who fell out of favor with the American people when she went to the Johnson White House and challenged Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson face to face in a gathering at the White House, a ladies’ tea, as it were. But she just, you know, wrecked the whole room when she spoke out against the war in Vietnam, and again, just got—just that really blackballed her, in many ways, in the entertainment industry. And King sent her a personal telegram and then called her to tell her how courageous he thought she was. So, whether it’s Eartha Kitt or Muhammad Ali, he wanted to be in solidarity with those who saw that the Vietnam War was wrong.

What’s great, I think, about the book, if I can say that, is the way we chose to write this. Again, those biographers have written the history. Nobody has focused just on the last year. But the narrative was a bit different. This is what I would call a historical novel. It is historic: Everything in it is accurate. There are tons of end notes at the back of the text to tell you where the research comes from. But it’s written as a novel, historical novel, so that every chapter is a page-turner, because, for the first time ever, we put you with King in his seat. And he’s never Dr. King. He’s Doc, because to his family—I mean, to his friends and his co-workers and colleagues, he was Doc. So, from page one to the last page of the book, he’s not Dr. King to you. He’s Doc. You’re in the seat with him. And everything he goes through and feels and endures in that year, you get to feel that with him, because the story is told from his perspective.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis, you mentioned Ferguson, and I want to go to Ferguson for a minute, where certainly Democracy Now! went in these last weeks. Residents of the town packed a City Council meeting on Tuesday night, the first since last month’s police killing of 18-year-old African American Michael Brown. The City Council unveiled reforms that have stemmed from activists’ demands, including a citizen review board, a cap on how much of city revenue can come from fines, and a one-month recall program for warrants. But a number of residents voiced criticism the reforms don’t go far enough, calling for the resignation of top officials and the arrest of the officer who shot Brown, Darren Wilson. Over the course of the night, many who spoke gave their names simply as “Mike Brown,” like this young man.

MIKE BROWN”: The police do not represent us. It is time for us to start getting suited and booted, and kick their you know what out of office. We got the power. They don’t. We’re trying to figure out, how do we get this young man, this old man, or whatever, the man, the mayor, that’s up on his iPad, don’t care what we got to say—how do we get him out? We vote him out. We recall him out. It’s time for him to go.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night, a number, scores of Ferguson residents were arrested, once again, protesting in the streets. What would Dr. King do?

TAVIS SMILEY: Protest has its place, there’s no doubt about it. And there’s no way the civil rights movement accomplishes what it does without those kinds of protests. So King would certainly be in support of protest against unjust laws and against practices that take the lives of innocents and precious young people who are unarmed. And so, Dr. King, certainly, was always concerned about this. As you recall, he spoke at the funeral of the four little girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the only time that we see King actually crying in public in a public address, because that hurt him so much. But he was so concerned about young people.

And one of the tragedies of his life, at the end of his life, is that he thought that he—there was a disconnect between Dr. King and young people, like the brother you saw speaking there, because Stokely Carmichael was coming on, and H. Rap Brown was coming on, and Huey Newton was coming on, and “Black Power” was the slogan. And Dr. King was trying to get them to understand that “We want the same thing. Our tactics may differ, but I love you, and I care about you.” So he went to Newark to talk to young people. Everywhere he went, he wanted to talk to young people.

There’s a great story in the book where, speaking of young people, he’s in Cleveland one day. And they’re in the car, and on the corner there are a bunch of young black women, young black girls, but they’re prostitutes. And they see Dr. King in the car, and they start chiding him and calling him Uncle Tom and calling him other names, because while they’re prostitutes, they’re into this Black Power thing, so they start calling Dr. King names. And the car—the light turns green. The car pulls away. And Andy Young and Bernard Lee, who are his aides in the car, are trying to get him to a church, Olivet, where he’s going to be late for this appearance. And Dr. King says, “Turn the car around.” And they said, “Doc, we’re going to be late. We’ve got to keep moving.” Doc says, “Turn the car around.” And Andy knew what he was feeling. Andy said, “Doc, let that go. They’re kids. Don’t—they’re just kids. Don’t worry about that.” Doc said, “I told you, turn this car around.” And they turn the car around at the next street. Dr. King went back, got out of the car and stood there for 15 to 20 minutes, talking to these young prostitutes. He wanted to understand why these young folks felt that way, and he wanted them to understand why he was fighting so hard on their behalf. And he had to leave to go to the church. He says to them, “Why don’t you meet me back at”—these are prostitutes—”meet me back at my hotel at 3:00, and we can continue this conversation.” So he goes to the church, does what he has to do. At 3:00, the front desk attendant calls his room and says, “Dr. King, did you ask”—he just couldn’t believe that these prostitutes were there to see Dr. King. And sure enough—

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

TAVIS SMILEY: —they sat for hours, and Dr. King was able to connect to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis, as we say goodbye to you, we also say happy birthday.

TAVIS SMILEY: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Happy 50th birthday. Are you really doing Dancing with the Stars on Monday?

TAVIS SMILEY: Can you believe it? Yeah, the last foolish thing I’m doing before 50.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s show some of the video as we’re going out. Can we show that video of Tavis Smiley dancing? How you came to do this?

TAVIS SMILEY: Just I decided to do one last really foolish, crazy thing before I turn 50, and here we are, early in rehearsals. I’m actually much better than this now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll check you out.

TAVIS SMILEY: But Monday night, you be the judge.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis Smiley, I want to thank you for being with us. Tavis Smiley, public TV and radio broadcaster, renowned journalist. His latest book, Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year. You can go to our website to read the first chapter.

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Up Next

“Struggle is a Never-Ending Process”: MLK Daughter Bernice King on Selma March, Black Lives Matter

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