Smiley’s Perspective of Dr. King
Dr. King seemed to have a special place in my world even though I minimally read his historic speeches, sermons, and texts. The assassination of Dr. King was a significant event in world history but also my own history - as it was the day my parents dealt with turmoil in having their local business burnt to the ground in the city of Buffalo (an unintended consequence that my dad’s business suffered in the aftermath of the looting and rioting on Jefferson Avenue) and the day of delight in learning they were again expectant parents.
I’m not a traditionalist as a reader and it makes my book club mad; I enjoy beginning from the back of the book -- resources/citations, epilogue then the front -- dedication, quote, contents, preface/introduction. I believe these informational text features are critical in understanding the author and getting into their shoes for the duration of reading. Second, these insights provide the reader important pieces in knowing who is the author, what makes him/her credible, and why does this topic matter to the writer along with me-- the reader. These were important as I read this accounting of Dr. King's final year.
Smiley informs the reader of his purpose for writing from the start as he aimed to better understand King, who he revered as a teenager, during the last year of his life. The story begins with King’s decision to stand up and speak out against the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York City and concludes with his assassination one year later on April 4, 1968. The book is organized by four seasons and the author gives the reader a rare look into King’s beliefs and feelings while also detailing the historical events of the civil rights movement. the social class political battles on domestic and foreign policies, the Vietnam War, and the changing social times most evident with music. Smiley’s careful inclusion regarding music really caught my attention and I did not know that Harry Belafonte was one of King’s closest allies. The music of Sinatra, Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. propelled Dr. King in the 1950’s; yet, these same musical artists no longer grooved the growing unrest of America’s youth during the 1960’s. This text would make a great resource for courses, such as English Language Arts, Music History and Social Studies --plus give a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T to Aretha Franklin who Dr. King knew well prior to the diva’s fame as American music icon.
Reflecting on Current Times with the Past
In light of current events in the United States and the issue of race, it makes me reflect that in some regards we have not made it very far since the 1960’s. Like Gandhi’s goal for peace between Hindus and Muslims on the sub-continent and Mandela’s hope for political, economic, and social balance among races in South Africa, humankind has failed to eradicate racism in favor of peace for all peoples. As a world history I did not have students read King’s writings; yet, now I am inspired to do so and I would introduce them to students if in the classroom. On the eve of Black History month in February, some great resources that I might also consider for instruction would include Facing History and Ourselves, The Martin Luther King Jr. Research Institute, and Voices of Civil Rights.
To give you a sense of Smiley’s craft, he opens the text with a quote by T.S. Eliot stating “April is the cruelest month” from The Wasteland. Smiley infers this metaphor onto King’s persona in the last year of his life while also asserting our society has yet to achieve King’s mission of resolving the issues of racism, poverty, and militarism. King was dedicated to this trinity mission regardless the view of politicians, reporters, dissenters, and even his assassin. Even though King’s mission went unfilled in his lifetime and we have yet to attain it either in 2015 -- there is hope in King’s words and his conviction to civil disobedience and peace among humankind that someday it may become a reality.
The Challenge to Inspire Others
I invite all Social Studies forum members who received their copy of Death of a King to read it by March 2nd and share a conversation face-face with a colleague at our next forum or even better tweet out your perspective of Smiley’s book at #iesssforum. I invite my teammates who read Death of a King to comment on this blog regarding their interpretation and how this text may be used to benefit student learning. I encourage others who have not read the book to do so. More importantly I seek to inspire teachers to teach with Death of a King as I was inspired to inquire more and to spark student curiosity in really learning more deeply about Dr. King as a man of great conviction and not just another day-off from school for a National holiday.