On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr., stepped into the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City and delivered a thunderous sermon opposing the war in Vietnam. In that now-famous moment, King denounced the strident militarism of the American government—describing it as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today"— and outlined what he saw as the connections between the war effort, racism and poverty.
In Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Year, television host Tavis Smiley provides a "you-are-there" account of King's political, moral and personal struggles from the time of the Riverside sermon to his assassination exactly one year later. By the summer of 1967, the fabric of the civil rights movement had started to fray; rival factions within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) challenged what they viewed as King's betrayal of purpose as he moved to focus more on the war than the struggles against racism. Younger black leaders, including H. Rap Brown and Jesse Jackson, moved away from King's nonviolent strategies, dividing the black community, especially in northern cities like Chicago and Detroit where poverty fueled race riots. By the time of King's assassination, Smiley shows that chaos more than community reigned among civil rights activists.
Drawing on new interviews with King's family and closest associates, Smiley recreates not only the cultural and political strife of King's final months but also his deep weariness from having to stay constantly on the move to meet with other leaders or participate in acts of civil protest. Unlike other, more definitive, biographies of King, such as Taylor Branch's Parting of the Waters, Smiley's account takes King off his pedestal and offers glimpses of the high personal costs King paid for his commitment to the moral callings of his conscience.