Forty years on from his assassination, and what have we realized of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Dream for America? On the one hand, we are on the cusp of a potentially momentous political sea change, the election of the first African-American President, a prospect thoroughly unfathomable at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. On the other hand, we have examples like the epic disaster of Katrina, which ignited massive racial controversy in its wake regarding the government’s bungled and lax response to the disaster, throwing into stark relief the chasm-sized racial fissures still furrowing their way through America.
Race is just as vital and pressing a concern then as it is now. Look at it one way, and we seem to have come so far. But turn the issue over, and we are running in place, or even regressing. Race, maybe even more so than Iraq or the economy, will most likely end up being the most significant factor in the 2008 election, for better or for worse.
For better, since on a socio-political level, racial issues still trump just about everything (except, perhaps, a complete economic collapse) on a domestic, internal level, and the potential of an African-American President may be the most momentous event in the history of race relations in America since the Civil War. For worse, because we have still utterly failed to realize the most strident and emphatic point of King’s dream, that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”. This supplanting of color with character still is a long way off, we are still not color blind—we aren’t even close. This is our curse and King’s challenge, still as relevant today as it was in 1963.
Forty years on, and countless programs and biographies later, do we need another retrospective of King’s life and message? Yes, more now than ever. But is there anything new to say, any new angle on King? Does there really need to be? The History Channel’s able and even entertaining King gets the job done, with swift and compelling efficiency. It tells us nothing we don’t already know, but it’s the reiteration that’s important.
We take King for granted, I think. We recognize his words still, ringing down stridently through the decades, but do we really hear them? We need to listen. King points us in the right direction, keeping the focus always on the man’s actions and words in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Personal biographical details pop up briefly, but mostly unobstrusively. They have there place, to be sure, especially if we want to know the whole man, but King is really only concerned with the public man—the preacher, the protestor, the leader.
Hosted and narrated with imperious gravitas by Tom Brokaw, the program splits its lean 90 minutes equally between archival footage and present day interviews with King’s fellow travelers and public figures inspired and influenced by King. Following a mostly linear path, the program highlights key events in King’s public life in the cauldron of the South of the 1950s and ‘60s, from his early drafting into the Montgomery Bus Boycott; to his philosophy and practice of non-violent protest; to his squaring off against Sheriff Bull Connor in Birmingham in 1963; to the March on Washington the same year; down to his final day in Memphis in 1968. Its mostly a remedial history for those not versed in, or forgetful of, the history of the Civil Rights Movement, but it does make some interesting points, especially regarding King’s media savvy utilizing television, and his political leverage with the Kennedy’s, who bailed him out of some tight spots early on.
The interviews are rather scattershot and sometimes odd in their juxtapositions. Here we have activist Andrew Young, one of King’s right hand men in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (King’s main outfit of operations), followed by current R&B singer John Legend (?!). Rare interviews with King’s son, Martin III, are followed by bloviating by Bono. Sure, why not, I guess. King culls from a large swath, from journalists who covered King during the ‘60s, to Bill Clinton and Condoleeza Rice.
But none really contribute anything profound, except a brief line by Chuck D, MC of politically charged legendary rap group Public Enemy. His sole quote sort of justifies the whole program. He contends, during a discussion of whether King was a radical (as compared to other African-American leaders of a more violent bent, like Stokley Carmichael or Malcolm X), that King was perhaps the most radical of all the Civil Rights activists, but during the 40 years since his death, his legacy and life have been softened, as the man passed into legend and his words became taken for granted.
If nothing else, we should again listen to the man, hear his words and regard his actions, both in the context of the 1960s, and the present. We would realize that his is still the most challenging and most radical path to follow – and still the most necessary.
King is nicely complemented by Voices of Civil Rights, a powerful 45-minute program which eschews standard documentary format in favor of a fugue-like oral history of the Civil Rights Movement. Culled from innumerable first person narrative interviews, the program offers a unique eye-witness perspective on life in the South during the ‘50s and ‘60s from those who lived through it, from both African-American and Caucasian points of view. The total is greater than the sum of its parts, the various stories forming together a vivid patchwork picture of a specific time, place and society.
Certain testimonies do stand out from the others, though, including the harrowing tragic story of an activist African-American family from Louisiana plagued by the KKK, to the point where the Klan firebombed and besieged the family’s home. The story is told by two sisters who survived the attack and, surprisingly, by one of the Klansmen looking back repentantly (I think) on his past. It is devastating in its simplicity and frankness. The other testimony that stayed with me was quote from a woman remembering segregation, and summed it best by saying, “It was never separate but equal…it was just separate.”