For Tavis Smiley, writing a book about Dr. Martin Luther King's last 12 months was personal. Getting "The Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King's Last Year" (Little, Brown) published amounted to a favor repaid, and it even circles back to Detroit.
"He saved my life," Smiley says of King, talking by phone. It goes back to when he was 12 years old, recovering in an Indiana hospital after a brutal beating by his stepfather.
Not only was the young Smiley physically injured, but he was spiritually wounded as well. He'd been in the hospital for two weeks when a church deacon gave him a box of records of King's speeches on the Motown label: "The Great March on Washington" and "The Great March to Freedom" (his Detroit speech). Smiley was transfixed.
"I heard the love in his heart and the hope in his soul, the power of love, it was so reassuring for me," Smiley says. "King is talking to a nation, but he might as well have been talking to a 12-year-old child, Tavis. It told me, 'You're going to have to find a way to love your way through this. Hatred and revenge are not options. Figure out a way to love your way through this difficult spot.' Since the age of 12, I've been a King student."
Smiley will make two appearances in Michigan on Friday: a free one at the Detroit Public Library on Woodward at 3 p.m., and then later that evening, a ticketed event at 7 at the Southfield Public Library.
In the book, Smiley, with the help of co-writer David Ritz, delves into the tumultuous last year of King's life, when he was being attacked by the radical left for his unwavering belief in nonviolence and pilloried by former allies such as President Lyndon B. Johnson for his anti-war beliefs. King's year of hubris culminates in that terrible day in April 1968, in Memphis, when he is cut down by an assassin's bullet.
And yet Smiley found a transcendent message in writing about those 12 sad, stormy last months.
"After all the hours and hours and hours of tape on him, surveillance tape, wiretapping, not one single solitary time do they ever hear Martin contesting the humanity of any other human being," Smiley says. "For all the hell and hate, not one time was he hating on anybody. You hear him feeling sorry for his haters, sorry for his detractors — that's a kind of radical empathy. I'm working on being more loving every day, but I'm not quite there. He is as advertised, he is exactly who I thought he was, in public and private.
"That's not to say he's perfect," Smiley adds. "The book doesn't shy away from his shortcomings."
That those records of King's speeches were on Motown is not lost on Smiley. He has thanked Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., a personal friend, every time he sees him, for "following Dr. King around and taping those speeches." Smiley developed as a speaker by practicing and delivering the speeches as a boy.
"Actually a lot of those recordings came from different sources," Gordy says. "But Dr. King wanted to be on Motown; he felt that the message we were giving through our music was helping people to become emotionally integrated, before intellectual integration could take hold. ... He said, 'You're the only person I want to put out these records.' "
When his King book was finished, Smiley insisted upon a Detroit stop for his book tour, although it wasn't on the top of the publisher's list.
"Detroit is in this story in a number of ways," Smiley says. "He was dear friends with Aretha's father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, and he preferred to stay at the Franklin home, instead of a hotel; that's how he got to know Aretha so well."
Then there was King's test run of the "I Have a Dream" speech in Detroit in 1963, weeks before he delivered it in Washington, D.C. "Finally there's a really depressing connection. In the days leading up to his death, he made his last trip to Detroit, Grosse Pointe to be exact. ... He was never heckled so badly as he was heckled that day. Rosa Parks, who was working for (U.S. Rep.) John Conyers, was there that day but never never got to see him, the heckling was so bad, and security was so tight."
Using extensive interviews with close King aides who were with him all that year, Smiley and Ritz even convey what the civil rights leader was thinking, a literary technique that can lend intimacy to scenes but is sometimes controversial. Readers may also be startled that King is referred to throughout the book as "Doc," his nickname among intimates.
What would King think about the current American attacks on ISIS? "People say, 'Oh, that nonviolent philosophy that might have worked then, but not now; he didn't know Al Queda or Isis.' I'm insulted by that because it suggests that American terrorism is somehow not as bad," Smiley says. "Bombing, lynching, Jim Crow and Jane Crow, American terrorism was as terrible as anything in the world."
"I understand that there is evil in the world today," Smiley adds. "But they're missing his message on nonviolence."
Smiley is going to have his eyes and ears open as he visits Detroit on Friday. "I'm anxious to be back. I love the city, and I love the people, and anything that I can do to support the city, I'm happy to do," he says. "I was talking to some celebrity friends a while ago; we still haven't talked about how to do it, but we want to combine some of our money, buy houses and refurbish them, maybe. We're struggling with how to make a grand statement, rather than just wearing a T-shirt and a ball cap."
in Detroit and Southfield for his "Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King's Last Year"
3 p.m. Smiley will appear at the Detroit Public Library, 5201 Woodward, to discuss his book. Admission is free; copies will be available to purchase at the event.
7 p.m. Smiley will be at the Southfield Public Library, Southfield Pavilion, 26000 Evergreen, for a ticketed event. Reserved seating is available for those who purchase "Death of a King" before the event at the Book Beat bookstore, 26010 Greenfield, Oak Park. (Books purchased in advance will be discounted 10 percent). For each book purchased, the buyer will receive tickets for two reserved seats. Books will also be available for sale at the event.