There were three documentaries prepared for the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination: Hope and Fury was a production of NBC; I am MLK Jr. was prepared by the Viacom network; but perhaps the most interesting of the productions was HBO’s King in the Wilderness.
Peter Kunhardt is an experienced filmmaker who has previously produced and directed documentaries on a wide variety of historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon. Kunhardt chose to direct this production and he collaborated with a writer he knew, Chris Chuang, who had worked with on a documentary from the previous year about Warren Buffett.
King in the Wilderness has two defining qualities that differentiate it from the other two films and from previous King documentaries I have seen. First, it does not deal with King’s entire career—not even close. It limits itself to the last years of his life. The focus is on the time interval from the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 until his death in Memphis and the following funeral in Atlanta in 1968. Second, it does not feature the usual professional pundits as talking heads. So, thankfully, we are spared pretentious gasbags like Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw.
The film begins with shots of the King home in Atlanta. We then learn that several of King’s friends and working colleagues gathered there for the anniversary of his death. They will be the interview subjects for the film. When they appear, we see them in close-up looking directly at the camera. Thus we listen to King’s attorney Clarence Jones, his close colleague in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Andrew Young, his friend the actor and singer Harry Belafonte, Dianne Nash of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), singer and activist Joan Baez, and SCLC Chicago representative Jesse Jackson, among others.
I should note one other distinguishing feature. In criticizing the documentaries of actor Tom Hanks, I have written that, aesthetically, they are purely assembly line productions. As far as the way they are made, there is nothing at all distinguishing about them. With Hanks and his company Playtone, it is almost as if stylistically acute documentaries like The Power of Nightmares and The Kid Stays in the Picture had never been made. Kunhardt’s film is not a cornucopia of new ideas in that respect, but it does have some visual panache and interest to it.
In fact, it begins with the viewer going behind the scenes of a news interview with King. Sander Vanocur, NBC’s national correspondent at the time, is seen rehearsing an interview with the civil rights leader—clapboard included. King recalls his famous “I Have a Dream” speech made during the March on Washington in August of 1963. That speech was made in aid of passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He comments that in light of what has happened to America in the meantime, the dream he spoke about has now become something of a nightmare. The reference points he is speaking about are, of course, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the recurrent rioting, and accompanying fatalities, that had become so frequent by 1967.
The film tries to elucidate some of his chagrin by depicting both sides of a taped discussion of the 1965 Watts riot between King and President Johnson. He tells the president that unless he does something to give people in the black slum areas some hope, he fears that those areas will become tinderboxes of violence. Which, as we know, they did. Johnson did not do very much to offer any change or hope for those living in places like Watts because of his escalation of the Vietnam War—a theme to be developed later.
The film then sketches in another dispute that King was having in this time period. Because of these recurrent riots, and because so many of them began with an instance of police brutality, and because of the continuing violent acts by white terrorists—for instance the shooting of James Meredith during his March Against Fear in Mississippi—King began to catch some heat from what many saw as an unlikely source.
For instance, after Meredith was wounded and hospitalized by a white man, King’s group, the SCLC, stepped in to complete the march. But so did other groups, like the SNCC. By 1966, Stokely Carmichael had become the leading public figure in the SNCC. During the completion of this march, Carmichael started to use a previously unmentioned term: “Black Power”. This signaled the beginning of a different type of approach from King’s Gandhi-inspired civil disobedience through non-violent techniques (for example, lunch counter sit-ins). Carmichael’s message, which he deliberately made in King’s presence, was closer to what Malcolm X had been preaching in New York, and would lead to the creation of the Black Panthers in the San Francisco/Oakland area. King was placed on the spot by Carmichael’s provocation. He replied that, while he supported Carmichael, he did not endorse the connotations of the message. The film depicts this colloquy with the two figures standing next to each other. Carmichael then responds by saying that he is not as committed to non-violence as Dr. King is.
After this point is addressed, the film takes up another pressure point on the civil rights leader. In a taped phone call between Mayor Richard Daley and President Johnson, Daley tells the president that he knows that King is not with him on the war in Vietnam. Daley knows this since King has now turned his civil rights demonstrations north into Daley’s city of Chicago. This was in fact in response to an issue that Bobby Kennedy had been trying to raise awareness of for years prior to this move. As Kennedy had said at the time: What good does it do for an African-American to be able to sit at a lunch counter if he doesn’t have the money to pay for the lunch? So King and SCLC coordinator James Bevel decided to target the city of Chicago to address a more insidious pattern of racism in the north.
To say that King was not welcome in the north understates the antipathy that awaited him in the Windy City. During his marches he was greeted with rock throwing, loud racial slurs like “Niggers go home!”, and ugly signs. For instance, one placard said, “We Want Wallace”, meaning Alabama governor George Wallace. Another, in direct opposition to Carmichael, said “White Power”. It got so bad that King needed police protection. Further, Daley proved a formidable counter-puncher. Understanding his past successes, he was determined not to put King in jail. And when he heard the police had placed some of his demonstrators behind bars, he immediately ordered their release.
As Young comments, he was not so sure that King should have taken this project on at the time. Chicago was a huge city with a very entrenched power structure. He did not think the SCLC had the money or manpower to manage such a crusade. King did get an agreement after several months, concerning fair housing and integration of the city work force. Whether or not the city abided by it afterwards has been a point of controversy among scholars and writers ever since.
Around this time, in late 1966, King decided to meet with Carmichael to discuss precisely what he meant by the phrase “Black Power”. Carmichael and another SNCC representative, Cleveland Sellers, countered King by asking him when he was going to come out against the war in Vietnam. Carmichael memorably said, “No Vietnamese ever called me a Nigger.” This was a risky step. As Johnson domestic aide Joe Califano observes, LBJ thought he had some compromising information on King, which the FBI had given him. This referenced certain sexual activities by the civil rights leader and also presumed communist influences in his camp. But by this time, the FBI’s COINTELPRO program was in full bloom. Consequently, J. Edgar Hoover was now using spies in King’s camp and also arranging counter-intelligence programs against these kinds of groups.
But as the film shows, it was actually Coretta King who began to push her husband into opposing the war. She was actually speaking out against it and demonstrating before he was. King therefore decided to make his famous attack on Johnson’s war policy at Riverside Church in April of 1967.
Johnson, Hoover and the MSM did not appreciate King’s stand. Newspapers openly criticized him by saying that he had now “Crossed over the Line” or he had “Bordered on Treason”, claiming this now compromised his position as a civil rights leader. Hoover used this to play on Johnson’s feelings about King. But in addition to these, there were people inside the civil rights movement—like Roy Wilkins—who also questioned the open attack on the White House. The break with Johnson also hurt the finances of the SCLC. The man who had been praised for his stand on civil rights was now being attacked and vilified for his opposition to the war.
As King had warned Johnson, the slum areas in northern cities were piles of tinder waiting to explode. They did so in the summer of 1967. At that time, over twenty cities erupted in riots. Some of them, for instance Newark and Detroit, were among the most deadly in American history. The final toll was over 100 people dead. Oddly, the film does not discuss the appointment of the Kerner Commission by Johnson. Otto Kerner was the governor of Illinois. The White House requested he form a committee to study the causes of the riots and propose solutions. Kerner appointed a distinguished panel consisting of people like Wilkins, Mayor John Lindsay of New York, and Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma. Their report is one of the most honest and searing documents ever written on racial tensions in America at the time. It sold over two million copies. Its most famous line was, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Kerner focused on poor housing and education in the slum areas, but he also pointed criticism at the media for not devoting time or empathy to these problems.
The important thing about this presidential report was this: Johnson ignored it. He did not even do the customary photo opportunity with the committee once the report was done. Johnson’s reaction was defined by two parameters. First, Hoover’s talking in his ear and supplying him dirt had estranged him from King. And now this report concurred with what King had told him after Watts. Secondly, what Kerner was proposing was going to be expensive. Johnson’s escalation of the war had already caused budget deficits, which he was trying to disguise with accounting tricks and borrowing from the Social Security fund. As many have commented, the goals of Johnson’s Great Society were run aground by the war in Vietnam.
After Johnson’s failure to act, King decided to take Bobby Kennedy’s advice about a national demonstration against poverty. RFK had told NAACP attorney Marian Edelman that a good idea would be to have a mass demonstration in Washington as had been done with the March on Washington in 1963. Not everyone liked the idea, but King did. King appeared on the Tonight Show in February of 1968. The guest host was his friend Harry Belafonte. He talked about this problem of poverty and how it had actually gotten worse in the last four years. He also addressed fears of his mortality by saying it was not how long a person lived but what he did with that time—a message he would more or less repeat the night before his assassination in Memphis.
The SCLC began to design the Poor People’s March as a coalition. It would not include just African Americans, but also Mexican Americans, Native Americans and poor whites. King now began to talk about a coalition of the poor and to bring back ideas from FDR’s New Deal program and the proposals of Senator Huey Long—specifically, a declaration of economic rights and a guaranteed annual income. As King said at the time, when wealthy people or corporations get these things, it’s called a subsidy; when poor people get them, it’s called a dole.
The film now transitions to 1968 and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. King was reluctant to go to Memphis, but he did. As the film notes, King’s first appearance there ended in a riot and looting and some bad publicity from city leaders. Because of this black eye to the SCLC, King decided he had to return. As Andrew Young comments, the Riverside Church in New York, a huge and wealthy operation, now offered him a temporary pastorship, which King turned down. The program then shows King’s famous speech on April 3rd, the night before his assassination.
We then cut to news stories about King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel and the national wave of riots that broke out afterwards. Carmichael urged it on by saying: “White America killed Dr. King. We declare war on America!” The film underplays Bobby Kennedy’s role in the Atlanta funeral that followed. Kennedy called Coretta King after the murder, arranged to have King’s body transferred to Atlanta and then booked dozens of rooms for incoming dignitaries to attend. We watch a film of Jackie Kennedy walking up to the church, and there is a touching black and white picture of both widows facing each other in black dresses. Wisely, Kunhardt holds on that photo for a few seconds to expand their loss into our loss.
The film ends with a quite pithy remark by Young. He says, “We were not able to stay together without him. And the movement began to fragment.” That comment, following the picture of Jackie Kennedy and Coretta King, sums up the loss of what should have been a great decade.
This was the best of the three documentaries and it will be available on DVD soon.