The Bookworm: The last days of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Bookworm: The last days of Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Terri Schlichenmeyer (Image/Little, Brown)

Your heroes are larger than life.

They’re always tall, strong, and wise. No one can best them or outdo them, and no one can touch them in the good that they do. Whether they’re cape-wearing, donning a dress, or suited, you want to be just like them.

And you are, more than you realize. Your heroes are only human, after all, and in the new book “Death of a King” by Tavis Smiley (with David Ritz), you’ll read about one of them.

On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. (known to his friends as “Doc”) had his mind made up. Despite urgings from many in his inner circle, he was determined to go head-to-head with President Lyndon B. Johnson — arguably the most powerful man in the world — against the Vietnam War. They’d had this conversation before, Doc and LBJ, but Doc was “about to dramatically turn up the volume.”

It pained him, however, that his own people were attacking him.

In his mid-30s then, Doc seemed to be losing them. Many were following what SNCC leaders and Malcolm X were saying; specifically, that revolution was the way to quash racism. Doc felt strongly that ending the war was the key to peaceful equality. He was “still formulating his Vietnam position” at this time in his life, but he was increasingly seen as “out of style and out of step.”

The notion may have been underscored that summer, when more than 125 riots broke out across the country and no one seemed to be listening to Doc’s words. He was widely “out of favor” with many; some even blamed the violence on him.

Fundraising events failed that year. Money was tight; they were “barely scrap[ing] by.” Doc’s inner circle began “fighting to take the campaign in different directions,” and he turned to his wife, Coretta, on whom he had cheated, hoping for the support of at least one person he loved.

By early spring of 1968, Doc was deeply depressed and was talking about death “all the time.”  He wasn’t sleeping, wasn’t eating right, and was “torn by his obligations.”  He confessed to friends that “He’s certain… he’ll be killed.”

I’m not normally a fan of books like this. Recreated conversations presented as quotes and reconstructed personal feelings of dead men do not make a non-fiction book, in my opinion. But yet — because author Tavis Smiley explains why he wrote “Death of a King” this way — it’s OK.

In fact, it’s better than OK.

In his introduction, Smiley says that an early admiration of King helped him in life and career, but he thinks King’s “martyrdom has undermined [King’s] message.” Through interviews and other conversations, Smiley recorded “essential truths” that he says needed preserving, and he found an immensely readable way to share them.

Ultimately, I liked this book for its novel-like flair and for the intimacy that it lends to “the soul of the man” that so many revere. And if you’re one of those reverential folks, “Death of a King” will be a huge book for you.

“Death of a King” by Tavis Smiley (with David Ritz)

c.2014, Little, Brown

$27.00 / $30.00 Canada

277 pages