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American Experience: Roads to Memphis

Director: Stephen Ives
Cast: Benjamin Hooks, Andrew Young, Roger Wilkins, Dan Rather, Gerald Posner, Hampton Sides
Regular airtime: Mondays, 9pm ET

(PBS; US: 3 May 2010)

You Can't Do Things to Stay Safe

It’s the history of the American people giving in to their prejudices, their ignorance. I don’t think Americans should mourn Martin Luther King. I think they should mourn themselves.
—White woman on the street, Roads to Memphis


“The pathology and the sickness and the neurosis of Memphis, and of this racist society in which we live, is that that really pulled the trigger,” asserts a young Jesse Jackson. “To some extent, Dr. King has been a buffer for the last few years between the white community and the black community. The white people do not know it, but the white people’s best friend is dead.”


Jackson’s pronouncement, just after Martin Luther King Jr.‘s assassination, is at once mournful, discerning, and angry. Coming late in American Experience: Roads to Memphis, it also highlights social and political contexts for the crime, sounding a caution against divisive politics and fear-mongering—a caution that may be as relevant today as it was 42 years ago.


That said, Roads to Memphis remains focused firmly on the past, on laying out just how James Earl Ray came to the same place as King on 4 April 1968. Not unlike CNN’s Eyewitness to Murder, it rehearses the most widely accepted version of events, that Ray killed King on his own. No matter that he was, as journalist Gerald Posner submits, “a four-time loser,” a petty criminal without education or means. Ray was also symptomatic, racist and frustrated and lost.


“I wouldn’t call him a great intellect,” says Dan Rather, “But it would be a mistake to think that he is dumb.” Just so, the program traces Ray’s 1967 escape from Missouri’s Jefferson City Correctional Center, a maximum security prison, hidden in a bread truck, then his journey to Chicago. Here he met with his brothers, a reenactment suggesting they smoked cigars while Ray said he was thinking of killing King. Hampton Sides, whose book Hellhound on His Trail, is a primary source for Stephen Ives’ documentary, surmises that “the main thing is, there’s money to be made,” as Ray has heard in prison that there was a $50,000 “bounty for the head of Martin Luther King.”


Historian Walter Flynt submits that Ray also “wanted the notoriety of publicity,” imagining that he would hailed as a “hero” if he completed his self-appointed mission. The program here sets Ray’s thinking alongside King’s: both men see their own visibility as a means to bolster their opposite causes. As King tells an interviewer, “I would willingly give my life for that which I think is right,” Roads to Memphis notes that his colleagues are worried that he’s exposing himself to “the constant threat of assassination.” Here a reenacted scene has the camera pointed at an image of King on a motel room television, as if over Ray’s shoulder. Harris Wofford, an unofficial advisor to King at the time, explains that he “saw nonviolence and politics as drama,” a way of “using virtue against them.” King took the risk, Wofford says, in order to draw attention to such prejudice and hatred and irrationality.


By contrast, says Memphis Assistant District Attorney John Campbell, “Ray looks very ordinary, he doesn’t draw attention to himself. He’s great at staying in the background.” This allows him to travel easily, work temporary jobs, even complete a bartending course under various aliases. He makes his way from Chicago to Canada to Los Angeles, and then heads south, to New Orleans. Here begins stalking King (according to Ray’s admission to journalist William Bradford Huie), buys a Remington Gamemaster Model 760 30-06 caliber rifle in Birmingham, Alabama, the type of gun he used in the military (though Ray was discharged for “ineptness and lack of adaptability,” Sides says, “The army does teach him how to shoot well”). 


King, meanwhile, comes to Memphis to lead a march in support of striking sanitation workers (those wearing the “I Am a Man” placards). Though advisors urge him to go straight to Washington DC for the planned Poor People’s Campaign march, he insists he must go back, following a 28 March demonstration that ended in violent oppression by the National Guard and police, during which a 16-year-old was shot and killed by a policeman. Removed to a motel as this confrontation began, King recommitted himself to a public display of nonviolence in Memphis.


The dual trajectories outlined by Roads to Memphis are familiar. Still, the program builds to a climax, with alternating talking heads describing each man’s route: Campbell says Ray “saw himself as trying to preserve white society,” while Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles remembers King’s remarkable “Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis (“And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you…”). “After that speech,” Kyles says here, King “was like a kid,” as if he was saying, “‘I’m laying this heavy burden down, wherever it leads me, that’s where I’m going.’”


Roads to Memphis closes by suggesting the burden remains with us, that we must continue along roads from Memphis. Andrew Young explains, “I learned from Martin Luther King that you have to do what you think is right and accept the consequences as they come. You can’t do things to stay safe.” A young boy in Memphis after King’s death embodies this idea. Interviewed as he marches with Coretta Scott King and 50,000 others in support of the sanitation workers, he says, “I think if he died for it, I could carry out what he started,” the boys says, “He stood for nonviolence and peace among all men.”

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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