Some forward-looking college professors enabled television's Smithsonian Channel to offer a look at the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. from the time in which it occurred.
The network said Wednesday it will air a documentary in February culled primarily from local news footage in Memphis, Tenn., where the civil rights leader was murdered on April 4, 1968. Most of the footage hasn't been seen on television since it originally aired.
Many such moments are lost since local television stations usually taped over old broadcasts or threw away film reels, said David Royle, executive producer at the Smithsonian Channel. But some University of Memphis professors sensed in March 1968 that civil rights history was happening with a strike of local sanitation workers, the event that drew King to Memphis, and they collected footage of the events through King's murder and its aftermath.
"What they were doing was absolutely visionary — and very unusual," Royle said.
It enabled the production of a documentary with a vivid, "you-are-there" feel and the uncovering of some fascinating moments.
Royle said he was drawn, for instance, to coverage of King's famed "mountaintop" speech at the Mason Temple the night before the assassination. Cameras followed King after the speech to where he slumped in a chair, and viewers could sense the man's fragility.
The producer said he recognized how the existence of such film was unusual when he researched an older documentary on Sam Ervin, the North Carolina senator who chaired the Watergate investigative committee in the 1970s. Royle said he traveled across North Carolina and could find only a minute and a half of tape of Ervin in his home state.
Another stroke of luck for Tom Jennings, who produced "MLK: The Assassination Tapes," was finding Vince Hughes, who was a 20-year-old Memphis police dispatcher on his second day of work when King was killed. Hughes kept audiotapes of police calls on that day and crime scene photos from where King was shot, and the material was made available for the film.
Jennings also went to radio station WDIA to collect interviews from black Memphis residents at the time. The white-owned and operated TV stations at the time had little such material, Royle said.
"This (documentary) plunges you into the immediacy of the period and allows you to absorb it the way people at the time absorbed it," Royle said. "There's something that's electric about that. It gets you to sit up and pay attention."
Smithsonian plans to air the special on Feb. 12.