Reflections on “Death of a King”

When I think of the Martin Luther King that is idolized in contemporary settings versus the Martin Luther King of which Tavis Smiley and David Ritz projects in the early chapters of Death of a King, much is left to ponder. The ambiguous space from which King has been launched, in the 21st century, situates a King, that is settled in reconciliation without any variance or critical lens. Tavis Smiley and Davis Ritz interrogates that particular notion by isolating a King that is wrestling with the establishment of an evolving identity. I, purposely, employ the word wrestling instead of developing because this process is ever-etching King toward meaning- making within the Poor People’s Campaign. King is reluctant to embrace the vast changes shared with him from Bayard Rustin; highlighting that racism must be coupled with economic freedom in order for the impact of the Civil Rights Movement to be substantial nationwide. It is Rustin who is in King’s ear, years prior to his enlightenment, that folks with access and no money is just as bad as no access. King experiences this reality as he is matriculating through the West Coast, it is there where the epiphany of a new direction engulfs his persona. The events of the moment are galvanizing within the instance, a resurrection of a new agenda — thoughts that are lying dormant but re-energized by his encounters on the West Coast. The identity shift that happen through the encounters on the West Coast assisted King in reimagining freedom for Black people in the United States, it tilted his overall thinking about nonviolence and served as a marker for change.

            Moving throughout the West Coast produced an economical perspective for King that he appeared reluctant to grasped, previously. While in those locations, he not only encountered a hatred from white folks but a particular angst that engulfed Black folks as well. These folks were not as concerned with racism as they were with economical stability — jobs. They preferred to have decent living spaces and opportunities to good paying jobs. King’s naiveté in such areas never embarged upon his status in the South because his previous work secured his reputation. But, in the Midwest and on the West Coast, King was not as much of a redeemable entity. What had he accomplished in such settings? This begins to be an unsettled rendering for King and the movement as he is trying to garner support. What makes King such a viable figure that the folks in these areas would want to listen to him? Yes, he had done some things in leading the marches in the South but the dynamics were different in these cities. The shift is King’s identity is starting to reveal itself at this moment. As a leader, he is questioning himself and the people are moving in a more militant direction. King is out of step with the happenings of the day which is halting his progress for effective change. King is the “ultimate Negro at a time when Negros are seeing themselves as blacks.”[1] This produced a dialectical difference of King and the constituents of the cities. Ultimately, this produces a wall that would prove unavoidable for King.

            Because King is attempting to wrestle through the very issues plaguing his progress on the West Coast and Chicago, his view of nonviolence becomes tilted. This understanding of tilted is framed by Melissa Harris-Perry’s concept of the crooked room.[2] She uses a study conducted by H.A Witkin that placed people in a “crooked chair, with crooked pictures and asked them to align themselves properly.”[3] These folks were placed in a titled chair with titled pictures but some still contorted their bodies in order to make the object straight. What I am proposing is that King does some of the same contortionist maneuvers when it comes to negotiation within a non-violent agenda. King never, openly, denounces the use of non-violence, and, consistently, commits to non-violence, as a mean to win against the structure of violence until his death. The appropriation of the tilt, nonetheless, comes into play as King begins to respond differently to why Blacks are suddenly responding with violence on the West Coast and the Midwest. After major riots and other protest over his position of the Vietnam War, King fires back about violence. He responds to an inquisitive reporter, “In the final analysis a riot is the language of the unheard.”[4] King goes further with his tilting of his position on non-violence when he claims” that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice.”[5] Though King is not advocating for the total dismissal of non-violence, what he is proposing is an explanation: Why do Black people have to have a legitimate reason to be violent? He is tilting his head just bit in order for some clarity to surface in this space of ambiguity. In white folks’ hurry to move to tranquility, they have failed to assess the violent structure that is harming Black bodies and minds. Thus, King is calling for a readjustment, but he is starting with himself.

            Lastly, King’s travels to the West Coast served as a marker for his new emerging identity of Blackness. He is having to come to grips with the Black Power movement and it is pressing him to reinvent himself and his message. Smiley and Ritz denotes that King was still dressed in “black suits and ties” when the mood of the day was “dashikis, leather jackets, dark glasses and berets.”[6] King is observing, literally, that he is becoming obsolete in an everchanging climate that is moving toward a different type of militancy and resistance with white supremacy. His non-violent rhetoric was losing the day while Black Power was becoming an existential rally cry for poor Black people. What Smiley and Ritz exhibit is that King was so steeped in his traditionalism that it begins to blind his leadership in particular places where change was vastly needed. It was in those very places where King begins to envision how he was misguided on his overall approach. He needed to find a way for people to actually eat at the very counters that he had fought for them to sit at. Here is where the Poor People’s Campaign starts to become a reality.

            King identity goes through a transformation during the last year of his life. King has become a major cog in the wheel for justice but is greeted by a force that is gaining strength, quickly — Black Power. It is something that he has fought against but has preceded to back him against the wall. King embraces the concept but reimagines it through the lens of economic empowerment, doing his best to shield the Civil Rights Movement from being an isolated endeavor. Interestingly, we find Smiley’s and Ritz’s King becoming radicalized into the leader of the Poor People’s Campaign. Honestly, a movement that would have changed the trajectory of the United States if he would have been able to fulfill the objectives of its mission. King dies being loved as one of the greatest progenitors of a reconciliatory ethic, but he was killed with a spark of genius that might have reframed the story of the United States. 


[1] Tavis Smiley and David Ritz, Death of a King, New York: Back Bay Book, 2014., 74.

[2] Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.,29.

[3] Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen, 29

[4] Smiley and Ritz, Death of a King,42.

[5] Smiley and Ritz, Death of a King, 43.

[6] Smiley and Ritz, 79.

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