By Orisabiyi Williams|Contributing Editor Liz Varmecky Frank
When we talk about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we talk about the March on Washington, his famous “I Have a Dream…” speech, MLK Day parades and that fateful evening in Memphis when he was shot down. Rarely talked about is the last year of King’s life, when his politics radicalized, and he metamorphosed into a different man. The King of 1963 is not the King of 1967. Tavis Smiley’s new play “Death of a King,” coming to Tulsa on Feb. 8, based on his book of the same title, covers the last 365 days of King’s life, telling the story of his political rebirth and his alienation from the community that once supported him.
Smiley spoke with the Black Wall Street Times about this time in King’s life and why he chose to adapt this story into a play. He was intrigued by the question that must have plagued King during this period of his life: “What happens when you are trying to stand in your truth and everybody and everything turns against you?”
Many supporters turned their backs on King, and when he died he no longer had the adoration of the masses. King lost many of his followers, including Thurgood Marshall who publicly ridiculed and criticized him, after he spoke against the Vietnam War in 1967. President Lyndon Johnson and Marshall had a strong relationship with each other, so when King spoke out against Johnson and his escalation of the war in Vietnam, he rocked the black community’s boat.
Smiley said, “The bourgeoisie elite negroes turned against Dr. King” after his statements criticizing Johnson.
Smiley said, “Lyndon Johnson had been the best friend in the White House that negroes had since Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. So Johnson comes along after Kennedy and he passes the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, so as far as black folks were concerned, Johnson is the best President we have had literally since Abraham Lincoln.”
(Photo Credit Yoichi R. Okamoto/Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum)
Smiley said that at this point elite members of the black community, some who worked with King on the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, were not up for a conflict with the president of the United States. “They didn’t want Martin, frankly, pissing off the President,” Smiley said.
King’s critics’ attitude was Vietnam wasn’t their fight; it was a whole world away. Smiley said that many in the community thought that the focus of activism should be solely domestic and “getting into it with the president who has been nothing but good” to them wasn’t productive.
King died with many secrets from the public: he attempted suicide at age 12, he was an insomniac, and when he was killed in 1968, at 39, he was penniless. Singer and activist Harry Belafonte paid for his funeral, and, according to King’s autopsy, his organs resembled those of a 65-year-old man.
“Every society must pay a price when you ignore the truth tellers among you,” Smiley offered in warning, which is as relevant today as it was during the tumultuous year of 1968 when King was killed.
Smiley’s book, “Death of a King,” affectionately illustrates the rarely told stories of King’s last year of life. The stage production will be at the Cox Business Center in February as part of an 80-city tour to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination.
You can purchase tickets at http://coxcentertulsa.com/event/death-king-tavis-smiley/. For other cities and tour dates, click here. http://deathofakingtour.com
Stay connected with the Black Wall Street Times for upcoming opportunities to win tickets and other prizes.
Check out my entire interview with Tavis Smiley by clicking on the link below.
Orisabiyi Oyin Williams is a mother of two, an Author and the Managing Editor of the Black Wall St. Times. Orisabiyi was born in Philadelphia Pennsylvania and later moved to Tulsa at the age of 10. She is a Community Activist and believes in leaving her community in a better state than how she found it. Orisabiyi serves as Chair of the Tulsa’s Coalition for Social Justice, a member of The Tulsa African Study Group and serves as a Commissioner on the Greater Tulsa African American Affairs Commission. Orisabiyi has been involved in initiatives such as renaming Brady, preserving Black Wall Street/Greenwood and bringing social awareness education to the community. Orisabiyi was the Campaign Manager for City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper and helped establish the African American Affairs Commission in Tulsa, with City Councilor and Community Activist Vanessa Hall Harper.