The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we remember today, the King for whom we name our streets and boulevards, has little resemblance to the real King - the King whose message of universal justice remains as radical and unsettling today as it was half a century ago.
So argues Tavis Smiley in his new book, Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Year, which he will discuss at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library.
"I'm afraid that King's [image] has been so sabotaged and so sterilized that the truth of who he really was is going to be irrecoverable," Smiley, who hosts talk shows on public TV and radio, said in a recent phone interview.
Smiley, who turned 50 on Saturday, said our current culture's cult of personality has virtually deified King while ignoring his message. The fact that he died by an assassin's hand has contributed to his mythification.
"Martyrdom has undermined his message," Smiley writes in the book.
Smiley recently made headlines for joining the cast of Dancing With the Stars. ("I'm turning 50, and I thought I wanted to do one last stupid, ridiculous, silly thing.")
Smiley's love for King is anything but silly. He has been studying King's work since he was 12, and always is passionate when he is talking about the Doc, as he calls King.
Smiley, however, doesn't shrink from the darker aspects of King's life, including his depression, heavy drinking, and extramarital flings.
Death of a King is a detailed chronicle of King's final year, focusing on how King expanded his purview far beyond civil rights by developing a general critique of American policy on a range of issues, from economics to foreign affairs.
Smiley's book opens on April 4, 1967 - a year to the day before before the activist was murdered - at a sermon King gave at Manhattan's Riverside Church. A thorough and decisive critique of the Vietnam War, the speech stunned many of King's followers. King went so far as to call the U.S. government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."
The sermon was part of a vigorous and uncompromising series of attacks King made against three sources of injustice he believed threatened democracy.
"The triple threat . . . was racism, poverty, and militarism," Smiley said. King, who despaired when he beheld the Detroit and Newark riots and the military tactics used to quell them, held that as long as economic equity is not achieved among all Americans, prejudice could not be defeated.
To King, "federal budgets are moral documents," Smiley said, "because they reflect our moral priorities." King's closest followers resisted the new direction of his thought. For critics, including President Lyndon B. Johnson, King had strayed outside the strict boundaries of the civil rights movement. Johnson previously had worked with King on civil rights legislation.
"[King's] truth was just too subversive," Smiley said. As subversive as Jesus' message that only radical love and service to others could heal us.
Things became so dire, Smiley said, "even black folk turned on him. The last Harris Poll during his lifetime found that 75 percent of Americans thought King was irrelevant, while almost 57 precent of black people felt he was persona non grata."
Smiley said he admires King for his refusal to compromise or yield to his critics. He taught about radical love, and practiced it through his moral leadership.
"For him, if you love people, you serve people . . . because you cannot lead without serving," Smiley said. "And you tell people the truth and you allow yourself to be put on [the] cross if that is what it takes."
King, Smiley said, was one of our last true leaders. "Ask young people today to name three leaders they think really love them, serve them, and would lay down their life for them," Smiley said. "Ask that question 55 years ago, and I think you would get a few names."
Including, of course, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Tavis Smiley: "Death of a King"
7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library, 19th & Vine Streets.
Tickets: $15, $7 for students.
Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org