Tavis Smiley on Repositioning Dr. King as a Revolutionary
by Kam Williams
Kam Williams: Hi Tavis, thanks for the time, brother.
Tavis Smiley: Always nice to speak with you, Kam.
KW: Your book deals with the last year of King’s life when the tide was turning against him, such as the Black Panthers, Ralph Bunche, and others in the movement. Now Dr. King is viewed as a martyr. Was it difficult for those still living to now speak negatively about King?
TS: Good question. Now that he is a martyr, rarely do people speak negatively of him. My point is that it’s easy to celebrate and applaud martyrs. The problem is that when King was here and in our faces, and talking about inconvenient truths, like what he called the triple threat facing our democracy—racism, poverty and militarism—everybody turned on him. Yet, 50 years after his assassination, what do we see when we look at Ferguson, Missouri? Racism, poverty and militarism! We have deified King in death, so it’s easy for people to say nice things about him now. But in life, we demonized him.
KW: An historical biography of the last year of Dr. King’s life, no matter how beautiful a tribute, is it really what we need to read now to get it right?
TS: Absolutely! The answer’s “Yes,” because we come to know who we really are in life during the dark and difficult and desolate days of our journey. If you think you respect and revere Dr. King, wait ‘til you read this book. You’re going to feel that way even more so afterwards. You’ll get to see how he navigated the most difficult period of his life, the last year of his life when everybody turned against him. That’s what fascinates me about him. After reading this book, you’ll have a different appreciation of Dr. King. It’s important to see him in his full complexity, and be honest about the fact that we help to kill King because we abandoned him. And once we abandoned him, we isolated him, which made it easy for someone to assassinate him. It was a three-step process.
KW: Do you have any interest in entering politics?
TS: Let me put it like this, “N, O, NO!” And put that in caps.
KW: You quote Dr. King asserting that “Our nation is sick with racism, sick with militarism, sick with a system that perpetuates poverty.” If Dr. King were still alive, what do you think his assessment of present-day America would be?
TS: He’d pick up right where he left off, talking about that triple threat of racism, poverty and militarism. Even in the era of the first Black president, racism is still the most intractable issue in this country. Regarding poverty, half of all Americans are either in or near poverty. Poverty is certainly worse for African-Americans now than it was during King’s lifetime. And there’s a highway into poverty, but barely a sidewalk out. This is not a skill problem, it’s a will problem, and King would be challenging us about the lack of our will to eradicate poverty. On militarism, the growth of the Military-Industrial Complex has been exponential since his assassination. If he were here now, he’d have a strong critique of the American empire’s militaristic approach to the world. And frankly, he’d have a strong critique of the Obama administration on its use of drones.
KW: You wrote that this book meant more to you than any of your others. I consider it homage to a legend. What do you think is the most important part of Dr. King’s legacy?
TS: I think Dr. King is the greatest democratic, public intellectual that America has ever produced. What’s interesting is that in the U.S., we regard him as an icon, while elsewhere around the world he’s regarded as a revolutionary. They saw him as the radical revolutionary that he really was. Loving your enemy is a radical concept. Here at home, we’ve sanitized and sterilized him, and failed to appreciate him as the revolutionary and prophet that he really was.
KW: What’s up with your campaign against Obama? Isn’t it somewhat self-serving? What, if anything, have you and Cornel West accomplished with your public criticism of the President?
TS: I am not engineering a campaign against Obama. My work and witness is about holding our leaders accountable.
KW: What do you think is the state of Black politics in terms of loyalty to the Democratic Party?
TS: It’s the same old story. Democrats, too often, take Blacks for granted, and Republicans, too often, simply ignore Black voters.
KW: What has to be done to change to the political stalemate we see in Washington?
TS: We need to elect leaders who understand that leadership is about loving and serving people, not about self-advancement.
KW: What happened with the R. Kelly book project?
TS: We published the book, but for any number of reasons, it didn’t sell enough to make the best-seller list. He was afforded an opportunity to tell his story, and the marketplace decided.
KW: I really enjoyed, and now miss, the Smiley and West radio program. Why was it canceled? Any plans for a similar program in the future?
TS: It wasn’t canceled. Dr. West and I decided to step away from it, primarily because we both just have so many things going on. We’re both very busy people.
KW: What are the future plans of Smiley Books?
TS: We’re going to continue to publish books we think need to be read.
KW: Thanks for another great interview, Tavis.
TS: Thank you, Kam. I look forward to reading it.