Up to the mountain

In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Dorothy Rabinowitz commends tomorrow evening’s PBS “American Experience” documentary — “Citizen King” — on Martin Luther King. She writes:

Filmmakers Orlando Bagwell and Noland Walker drew on the recollections of a varied assemblage of commentators — some among the most famous names in the civil-rights movement, and others entirely obscure, but with indelible memories of what it had been like to serve, say, as one of the high-school volunteers prepared to take part in the early demonstrations and to go to jail if necessary. Their most indelible memories, of course, are of the speeches of the minister leading them. He would listen to King speak, recalls one man, age 15 at the time, just to see how he would sweat, and how powerful he sounded. “The words just stayed in the air, you know, as he talked.”
The Birmingham demonstrations [with which the program begins, discussed earlier in her article] had their effect. As the film makes clear with commendable regularity, very little worked more powerfully to advance the struggle for civil rights than the nightly pictures on the nation’s television screens of the snarling police dogs turned on the demonstrators, the fire hoses that sent women and children sprawling. These were, for Americans, intolerable scenes, and the nation’s political leadership knew it.
For Martin Luther King Jr., there lay ahead, now, the March on Washington, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a Nobel Peace Prize, and no lack of crises, personal and political. His evolution from local civil-rights leader to world figure had early on borne home to him that he couldn’t make little mistakes anymore. “Every mistake I make now is a big mistake,” he told Wyatt T. Walker. “History has seized me.” The world figure would become an object of controversy even within the ranks of black activists. He was booed in Watts, where his message of nonviolence was considered passe. Black militants, indeed, developed an entire catalogue of derisive names for him, “De Lawd” and “Martin Loser King” among them.

Rabinowitz notes: “Also available here is a film clip of Sen. Robert Byrd, already showing signs, in 1968, of a distinguished future as the Senate’s champion pontificator, urging ‘well-meaning Negro leaders’ to take a new look at King, who was, he explained, a coward who got other people into trouble.”
She concludes: “This is a film…in which words are equal to pictures — a true rarity. Tired and discouraged in Memphis, Tenn., King summons the energy to deliver a final few words to the people who have packed the church — an address whose eloquence would ultimately make it the one best known to the world. The minister had, indeed, been to the mountaintop.”


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