The Southern from the Name
There’s a reason the Southern Christian Leadership Conference begins with the word “Southern,” and not “Northern,” or any other such directional designation. The reason appears obvious, but becomes further elucidated in the HBO documentary King in the Wilderness. Not only is perhaps the principal civil-rights organization of its time headquartered there, directing street actions throughout racially besieged Southern cities like Albany, St. Augustine, Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, Grenada, and its own graveyard, Memphis, but most all of its principle members were from there as well, well-versed in its particular rhythms and virulent strains of racial prejudice. Several—Andrew Young, John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, as well as the likes of advisor and attorney Clarence Jones and celebrity activists Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez—appear here being interviewed. One can say, however ironically, that in the South the SCLC enjoyed home-field vantage, although like so many others of similar persuasion risked life, limb, and consciousness on a daily basis facing off among taunts, threats, beatings, lynchings, and other forms of verbal and physical abuse from police, sheriffs’ deputies, ordinary citizens, and armed and sometimes hooded vigilantes. Home-field vantage—while being the object of bullhorns, attack dogs, and water cannons? When the SCLC hit the road toward the industrial north, reluctantly following in the footsteps of its leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in those of so many essentially expatriated, self-exiled African Americans before them searching for opportunities denied them, as you will see here, if you haven’t already, it was an entirely different story. It was a harrowing journey that sent its members deep into the eye of a menacing storm amid spectral visitations of their own mortality. For King, it was as if he were on 40-day, 40-night sojourn in the wilderness. If the ghastly street theatres in Alabama and Mississippi weren’t enough, one still wasn’t entirely prepared to set foot in Illinois.
Chicago—A Dream Become Nightmare
The stage was set by the terrifying street uprisings of Watts in the summer of 1965. While the impetus for the uncorked outrage was police brutality and oppression, the city of Los Angeles’s stunning and sanctioned discriminatory housing practices were not far behind. Those cloistered in the Deep South suddenly became exposed to the new urban realities of what was essentially racial apartheid: the Dream become nightmare amid a hornet’s nest of urban social ills. Where had he gone wrong? King pondered. The SCLC unfurled a new phase of its struggle by addressing three primary American maladies: racism, poverty, and militarism. If the first phase of the struggle was decency, the second would be equality. The SCLC secured an unheated flat without electricity in a Chicago West Side tenement amid a January winter of extreme cold. Images show King and company successfully hooking up a generator to the complex to the delight of residents; it reminds that some of the best inventors this nation has seen were African-American. The scene also illustrates the dual perception of the group’s, and its leader’s, actions: locals’ gleeful eruption at having the gang and the man in the hat in town and those detractors who saw them as showboats and outsiders. Huddled up in their new accommodations in blankets by flashlight, their residence was a microcosm of both. If the tenant occupation had theatrics written all over it, it also introduced the organization firsthand to the daily realities—and miseries—of the new urban American Negro: There’s not much more miserable than sitting in your dark flat without heat when outside it’s minus-16 degrees. If it wasn’t quite The Trail of Tears, the Great Migration appeared as a beeline from slavery to slum; I don’t think Grant would’ve been too proud, and Lincoln’s overcoat and top hat were smoldering in his grave.
The Chicago model itself plainly demonstrated, without any need for theory, that segregation led directly to poor housing which led to poor education which led to poor opportunity. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in the pivotal third episode of his excellent 2016 PBS series, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, identified housing segregation as the principal cause of past and contemporary African-American poverty and disenfranchisement, setting the episode there. That would, naturally, put racism and prejudice before it, as King, and any other logical thinker, would naturally have spelled it out. Segregation in housing opened a host of issues the SCLC wanted to concurrently address: community development, tenant rights, crime, systemic bias, quality of life. It wasn‘t going to be as clear-cut as facing down a Bull Connor or a George Wallace, as if in a showdown in the Wild West; in the North, things were more complicated.
The organization, of course, hit the streets, outside the storefronts of real-estate racketeers who were the field agents of prejudicial practices and in the neighborhoods of people who just couldn’t come to terms with the idea of living adjacent to an African-American family and whose racial and cultural intolerance directed citywide social policy. In the film, throngs of White citizens exhort protestors to go home in the most abusive and shameful language thought possible. King himself is struck in the head by a rock and sent down on a knee during a march out of Marquette Park. Without context, you’d think you were seeing classic B&W footage from the South, the only difference being the crowds were larger, and more ominous. For the SCLC and King, the strange fruit of the Great Migration would become a great awakening: by taking it right to them, it would wring out the worst from them. Just as with the demonstrative counterdemonstrations in the South that awoke a sleeping nation, the clamorous cabal of the city’s finest citizens displays no outward shyness toward news crews shooting audio/video, never mind their own children, who are more than happy to chime in with glee; just like that, the organization and its leader would provide the teaming situation a national platform. Mayor Daly is seen here having no fun, no fun at all, calling on the White House to have the head of the Negro excised and removed from the city’s limits. The Negro, meanwhile, in a scene sure to alight conspirators, is seen ducking into a telephone booth to report back to President Johnson on the city’s mood. As the year wears on, and sun and shadow lengthen, even African-American clergymen call on King to leave for fomenting trouble, an especially sharp dagger into the heart of the minister, and for a civil-rights group that was first and foremost an organizer of Christian religious affiliations and their adherents. The organization’s demands on city hall, precinct boards, real-estate boards, banks and savings and loans, and other businesses conclude in an agreement that satisfies King’s insistence on incremental solutions, but left he and his organization open again to criticism of leaving the door ajar. Nonetheless, the 1966–67 Chicago campaign would pave the way for major federal legislation in the form of the Fair Housing Act.
The Reverend and the Youth
In June 1966, King had retreated to the South upon hearing the grave news that James Meredith had been shot. Four years earlier, the native son had pushed for what would become the violent and difficult integration of the University if Mississippi via an assist from Medgar Evers’ state chapter of the NAACP and the tacit manipulation of the Kennedy White House toward enforcing the laws of the land, in this case Brown v Board of Education, decided a decade earlier. Meredith was on a one-man crusade for Black voting rights and against fear, which often went hand in hand, by marching the 220 miles from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi; he didn’t make it far, being nearly fatally targeted by a White citizen on just the second day of his journey. The image here of the native Mississippian down on the ground is another shocking, sad, and pathetic testimony to White attitudes toward Black Americans a century after slavery. Some of the film’s most startling and satisfying footage arrives in a march in support of Meredith as King and dynamic Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Chairman Stokely Carmichael are interviewed simultaneously by a journalist. It’s positively stunning to see the pair marching stride by stride beside one another espousing drastically diverging philosophies on the nature of civil disobedience in the most civil of all manners ever conceived, as the reporter, who walks between them, alternates questions, thrusting a microphone toward one, then the other. The scene is a testament to the reverence young Black leaders still held for King even as they publically and privately disparaged him and the decency and respect with which King held them and their views, in turn, even as he himself disagreed with their doctrines and creeds. One thing any viewer would have to take from this film is that the reverend is depicted here as an exceedingly courteous individual whose treatment of others—SCLC peers and staff, other civil-rights leaders, the media, seemingly everyone—is as much a trait to emulate as anything else he may’ve said or done, especially nowadays.
Carmichael gets a good deal of film time. The Trinidadian native’s emerging disillusionment with King’s nonviolent methods and his own embrace of more strident stances, including the removal of all non–Black Americans from the ranks of the SNCC, even though others arrived, and died, for its cause, is portrayed here as the focus of the larger fissure over the SCLC’s nonviolent tactics from other young activists. At this point, the future Kwame Ture stood for, and at the same time, in opposition to, everything King and the SCLC did. He was a Black man who, like King, dedicated his life to the decency, rights, and improvement of his peoples, but one who, at the same time, was shooting an arrow right through the heart of King’s Dream. Fellow Freedom Rider Lewis, who was supplanted by Carmichael as the SNCC’s chairman that very year, here attributes the leader’s shifting beliefs—he did, after all, strive to take the “Nonviolent” out of the SNCC—to youthful immaturity and outrage, something I would agree with, and yet for the young man who was verbally and physically denigrated, discredited, jailed, and incarcerated, who witnessed his peers being severely beaten right in front of him by police on multiple occasions, and who was even doused in a chemical gas attack by the Maryland National Guard in which he feared for his life and spent the night in a hospital unconscious, all for simply advocating for his own decency and those of his people, Carmichael could pretty much say or do anything he wanted.
This is the End/Our Other Brothers
If the brash young civil-rights leader could not move King, the admiral, from his seat atop the moving street flotillas Nonviolence and Colorblindness, he proved instrumental to the reverend finally coming out in public against the U.S. war in Vietnam. The SCLC had expressed its reserve that putting its leader’s powerful oratorical skills to the cause of the antiwar effort would not necessarily be so beneficial: Not only could it undermine the group’s focus and commitment on domestic issues afflicting Black Americans, it could also alienate its core supporters among the clergy and impact its ability to raise funds for its ambitious causes. The film itself is something of counterpoint to the depiction of King as a cautious force who held the movement back, not only in this instance, but also in relation to Chicago and Memphis, and in his engagement with young civil-rights leaders who were more jarring, if not necessarily more militant, as public perception goes. Following in the footsteps of his wife. Coretta, who spoke at crucial antiwar rallies in New York and Washington, D.C., as early as 1965—and is seen in footage here—once King arrived, it was with the force of a gavel, and it was as if he were never away. On April 15, 1967, he spoke along with Carmichael at the culmination of a mobilization march from Central Park to the United Nations in New York; he also spoke at a rally at the University of Minnesota-Saint Paul on the 27th. But it is King’s address at New York City’s Riverside Baptist Church earlier on the 4th that draws the film’s—and history’s—attention: an incendiary public reckoning that must stand as one of the most critical public addresses in the nation’s history. It is without much doubt, really, the one that got him murdered, that, and the imposing direction it propelled him toward, with a March on Washington he would go on to announce three months before he perished in the sun on the one-year anniversary of the disquisition. Militancy? The formidable orator went far beyond calling Americans home from the maddening campaign taking place in a dense jungle across the world. He directly challenged his nation’s moral character and democratic fiber, equated the Viet Cong and the Vietnamese people with American servicemen coming home in military issue body bags in droves, called for the self-determination of the Southeast Asian peninsula, and blasted the United States for neglecting the plight of Black Americans to fuel an engine of ravenous global conflict, chaos, and misery. It was a barely concealed critique of a merciless international capitalism that necessitates global militarism and an embrace of socialist ideals more attuned to a panArab or panAfrican nationalist anti-imperialist worldview, and it would be unheard of in today’s timid protest language even as conflict scours the globe. King’s views, alas, we’re hardly on the soft side. No matter, the SCLC was mostly correct in its assessment of the consequences of its leader’s new direction, and King would again be floored as the leaders of other assemblies turned away from him and the organization in outrage. It would be this very same Morningside Heights congregation from whose pulpit he invoked that “these too, are our brothers,” as if a disembodied voice anticipating its host’s own execution, that would offer the fiery minister a permanent home. King, who’d shared the reigns of Ebenezer Baptist Church in his hometown of Atlanta with the towering figure of his father—who makes his own presence felt here—is tempted, but the man had another calling that others of a more coarser spiritual outlook may have likened to a death wish.
A Dream in Flames/Resurrection City
That summer, as if on cue, major cities throughout the nation burned. In Atlanta, Baltimore, Birmingham, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York, Newark, Tampa, and elsewhere, Black Americans took to the streets, protesting, rioting, and engaging in pitched battles with fully equipped uniformed police officers, in addition to poor, substandard housing, the principal instigators of their misery. As curfews dawned, and National Guard troops mobilized, King watched it all on television just like everyone else, an urban nightmare, for all to witness. Equal rights and nonviolence were in flames. King would later visit Milwaukee, where attempts to establish a fair housing ordinance were rejected by the powers that be, and vastly outnumbered and overwhelmed NAACP protesters were met by virulent abuse similar to that in Chicago, sniper fire, and the burning of the chapter’s headquarters. Buoyed by their courage and determination, for the SCLC, “Burn, baby, burn!” became “Build, baby, build!” and “Organize, baby, organize!”
King and the SCLC wanted to take the street-level outpouring of rage and despair to the steps of the nation’s capital in an enhanced mobilization that would further expand the struggle from civil rights to human, which were plainly hanging in shreds from the poplar trees. The multiracial movement, dubbed the Poor People’s Campaign, would wring from the explosion of urban violence a nonviolent disobedience campaign of primary, in your face “disruption” and “militancy,” in the words of the group’s leader. In the film, King and co. are seen visiting schools and such in small towns like Marks, Mississippi where poverty and hunger were seemingly pandemic. The reverend insisted intervention was required in the form of a government program because capitalism itself, he recognized, was an insufficient means to address the economic necessities of Black Americans and others left behind. That truth was a given, and King was unafraid to enunciate it, just as he and the SCLC were more than willing to spell out the conditions such a program should take, even as criticism against the ambitious agenda mounted from those all around them. It was another example of the SCLC adopting a program originated by others and assuming its reigns with its distinctive tactics, organizational abilities, ample resources, and all-star players. The mobilization was sought for maximum visibility; if antiwar protests had assumed the nation’s attention, the riots of ’67 reminded everyone what had become unrealized, and King was determined to carry that momentum into a dignified drive all the way to the nation’s capital, where conditions could be ignored no longer. He would not live to see its culmination; with a women’s march led by Coretta and a more focused Occupy-like tent encampment dubbed Resurrection City in May-June 1968, nor would the promised land yet arrive in its execution; there was yet another distraction to his conscience and compassion, and a packed suitcase and plane fare were again in order.
Memphis—From Garbage to Decency to Destiny
It was no wonder. In Memphis, recently unionized African-American sanitation workers employed by the city’s Public Works Department were engaged in a strident strike over miserable and unequal wages, treatment, and conditions, precipitated by the sudden departures of two workers who were crushed to death in dilapidated garbage trucks in a repeat of an equally fatal incident that had transpired four years previous. The SCLC was again against the departure of its leader amid another potential distraction, but the sustained street-level action by a determined set of spirited men with nothing to lose met the crucial criteria that a man of conscience could not disregard. Images here of striking workers holding protest signs reading “I Am A Man” are stunning, and go right to the bone and marrow of the struggle for African-American emancipation from urban plague. If an American city could not even treat its garbagemen with any amount of decency or respect whatsoever, what was the point in trying to achieve anything else? Insult upon injury, the 1,300 striking sanitation workers were routinely maltreated by the city’s police force upon their daily march through the heart of Memphis, as if having to apply for welfare and food stamps even while working a full workweek was not insult and injury enough. It defied the basis of human decency, never mind the rational for the creation of capitalism in the first place. The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike was a precursor to the struggle for housing, education, and freedom from police mistreatment and violence, another essential individual right high in the minds of the nation’s Founders, who were so sickened by the presence of the Redcoats patrolling the streets their protestations permeate throughout the Constitution. It was ground zero; King was there, largely against the wishes of his peers. The direct strike evolved into a larger effort by local African-American leaders under the Community on the Move for Equality banner, and King was on the front lines, speaking to a packed house of ministers, activists, and congregants at Mason Temple Church on March 18 and leading demonstrations, including a particularly damaging action gone awry seven days later that resulted in a 16-year-old boy being shot to death by police amid teargas and chaos that culminated in the beatings of demonstrators by members of the Tennessee Army National Guard as they lay upon the floor amid acrid smoke at Clayborn Temple. The youth’s open-casket funeral is also included here, as well as efforts of a local Black-owned and college newspaper to counterbalance the negative portrayals of the striking workers in the larger media by simply telling it like it was. King was determined to right the ship Nonviolence after the March 25 melee and returned to the city. Four days after his earthly demise, Coretta and the SCLC were part of a large, more peaceable demonstration, and a settlement finally arrived from sick, stubborn civic leaders 12 days later. Whether the city would stick to its terms was another question entirely, and history was not necessarily on the side of the garbagemen. That’s just the way it was, and always seemed to be.
Black Angel’s Wings/The Mask
In the early evening of April 4, when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. strolled out onto the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel outside the King-Abernathy Suite, he might as well have been walking toward the sharp blade of the guillotine, or the tight coils of the hangman’s noose; it was as if he just had to put his head right in. Buoyed by a rousing oration the night before that he was not even supposed to deliver, the minister with the calling of the spirit seemed poised to spread his angel’s wings to their full maturity. He was prepared, and committed, to carry the organization he led, the SCLC, and the entire nation along with them, to new heights. From civil rights to human, from dignity to global peace, and back again, from the Quakers to Mahatma Gandhi to Henry David Thoreau, to the theologically inspired social justice that was his calling, he was present and accounted for. To say that his oration at Mason Temple Church that eve was prophetic is to say the sun will rise and set tomorrow in Atlanta. Death Wish? He exorcised those ghosts, even engaging in an extended, ebullient pillow fight with some of his SCLC peers in their room just hours earlier, but the highs and lows are never far away, are they? The storm that had driven down a hard rain upon Mason Temple’s brick exterior could not completely be swept away. An angel of death remained perched on the cross above the structure’s facade, waiting patiently as the preacher had prophesized, the storm clouds had departed, and a new day had dawned, then swept in for the kill. A single cartridge from a Remington thirty aught six had absolutely nothing to do with it; the bomb threat that had delayed his flight in from Atlanta was a ruse.
King had been imbued by death—not to mention life—for some time. Following in the footsteps of an overwhelming African-American preacher, he’d been born into it. What’s particularly striking about this film is the haunted look on King’s face in the footage. In seemingly every frame, except for a discomfiting interlude with his children over breakfast that seems to reinforce his reputation as a man who’d been steppin’ out on his own family in more ways than one, King both exudes the profound solemnity of what he’s trying to accomplish while at the same appearing to be engulfed by the experience. Approaching every lectern, and every pulpit, before every crowd, and every congregation, he’s a man who looks like a racecar driver who can’t escape the feeling he’s about to embark on his final ride as he prepares to descend into the cockpit; straightforward, he appears as a deer in the headlights. This is so ever present, it’s captured almost incidentally, in the look of his face, the presence of his body, and the sound of the voice, in the physiological toll the public and private life the idolized and most despised pastor had chosen for himself. An exception would be his pensive and relaxed approach to media interviews, in which he can be seen rallying his thoughts and delivering them with such composed command that to say his communication skills were off the charts would be to say Billie Holiday could deliver on a jazz standard. He enjoyed the media, he enjoyed the banter, and the back and forth, and he enjoyed debating with those who disagreed. But when the weight of the world was upon his shoulders, it remained coiled within his weighty frame, drenched his dignified, chiseled face, and pervaded the dramatic arch of his brow. The images are persistently repeated in a handful of vintage stills of him at a photography exhibit featuring himself and Robert Kennedy at the San Francisco Art Exchange entitled MLK & RFK: Two Great Americans: a serene, vaguely haunted gaze, infused with an awareness of death and his own part to play in it, thrown back upon the world as if as a death mask, his eyes black and glistening as of the sheen of a raven’s, exalted, divine mystery reflected back into the cold, stark reality of his surroundings in defiance.
Meet John Lewis/A Dream Deferred
Directed by executive producer Peter Kunhardt and written by Chris Chuang, who also collaborated for HBO Documentary Films on Becoming Warren Buffet and Jim: The James Foley Story, about the freelance American conflict journalist who was beheaded by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, King In the Wilderness, is a good film, but not a great one, and that’s disappointing, especially coming on the heels of Raoul Peck’s mesmerizing, must-see cinematic tribute to James Baldwin with the sanitized name, I Am Not Your Negro. After all, anything about the man should reach to that level. It’s what he demanded, even if it wasn’t always possible to achieve. Critics have been more impressed by the film—which I witnessed theatrically in very limited release at the Laemmle Pasadena just before its April 2 HBO premiere in time for a half-century national death vigil two days later—than myself, especially given the gravitas of its subject. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote the film conveys a “powerful emotional charge”; Owen Gleiberman of Variety called it “searing”; Andreas Hale of The Root described …Wilderness as “an eloquent and eye-opening portrayal [that] feels more timely than ever.” Part of the problem may be that much of the footage has previously been seen, and realized more powerfully, though I’ve noted exceptions above. The film’s most rewarding gift are the contemporary interviews that provide insight into King by those closest to him, and the subjects’ colorful reminisces and opinions about their former colleague who they held in such high regard; Belafonte in particular is always a delight.
The presence of Lewis, the subject of a 30-minute 2017 PBS documentary entitled John Lewis—Get in the Way that was rebroadcast in February, who was summoned by the sound of that voice on the radio amid the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 at the age of 15 as if from a muse, creates additional gravity. The SNCC and SCLC alum who was at the forefront of the student sit-in and Freedom Ride campaigns, who had been arrested 24 times by the time he was 23 years old, mistreated and beaten on numerous occasions, received a fractured skull during the Blood Sunday Selma to Montgomery march from an Alabama State Trooper, was rendered unconscious in a Montgomery Greyhound station after being besieged by civilians during a Freedom Ride, all for having the audacity to declare his life was worth just as much as a White man’s by being a participant in the nonviolent struggle for equal rights and desegregation, was also called a N— along with other Black Congressional Caucus colleagues—one of whom was spat upon—by unhinged Tea Party enthusiasts angrily protesting the Affordable Care Act more than a half-century later in March 2010. From Albany to St. Augustine to Birmingham to Selma to Montgomery to Grenada to Chicago to Memphis, from Los Angeles to Atlanta to Baltimore to Boston to Buffalo to Cincinnati to Detroit to Milwaukee to Minneapolis to New York City to Newark to Tampa to Washington D.C., when the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. looked across the plain from that exalted plateau, it strains belief that what he was envisioning were these United States. From the en masse purging of African–American citizens from eligible voting rolls, as if they were convicts or dead, to color-shaded redistricting, to those African–American men and women being shot unprovoked by police and sheriff’s officers and left for dead, it certainly gives one pause to doubt. But that too is a sickness, isn’t it? I have no doubt that, whether presiding or patiently listening amid a civil-rights meeting, a church recruitment drive, a tête-à-tête in the White House, or negotiating terms in a plain anterior chamber with no air conditioning with those sick White brothers who’d left their threatening Halloween costumes in their closets at home and were running cities and towns, the man who was always the smartest man in the room, on that, would most certainly submit.
(King in the Wilderness is available on HBO GO and HBO Now.)
(MLK & RFK: Two Great Americans continues at the San Francisco Art Exchange through June 30 and can be viewed at sfae.com.)
(Special thanks to The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University—firstname.lastname@example.org.)
© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours