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'Citizen King' more than just an icon

PBS documentary seeks to give complete look at civil rights leader's life, death
/ Source: The Associated Press

For many, he is frozen in a single, triumphant moment, the stirring cadences of his “I Have a Dream” speech rolling over the crowds gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in the summer of 1963.

On the federal holiday honoring his birth, Martin Luther King Jr. is usually remembered as the beloved winner of great civil rights victories.

But there’s another, lesser-known King — the man who moved into a drafty, run-down flat in a Chicago slum to call attention to the plight of poor urban blacks, and who preached fiery sermons against the war in Vietnam, denouncing “Western arrogance.”

In the last five years of his life, King ventured down a contentious, sometimes lonely path as he tried to refashion the civil rights movement he helped inspire. This often overlooked period of his life is the subject of “Citizen King,” a documentary airing on PBS stations at 9 p.m. ET Monday, the King holiday. (Check local listings.)

“We felt that there was a much more complicated and more challenging voice that emerged after the March on Washington,” said Orlando Bagwell, who directed, wrote and co-produced the documentary with Noland Walker. As the nation celebrates the 75th anniversary of King’s birth, “we should engage in a much more critical discussion of King and talk about all the things we agree with and disagree with.”

King’s final years have been receiving more attention from academics and historians concerned about the one-dimensional, idealized version of him that has come to dominate America’s memory.

Baptist minister and scholar Michael Eric Dyson proposed a 10-year moratorium on listening to or reading “I Have a Dream,” in his 2000 book, “I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr.” And in a 1993 op-ed piece, longtime activist Julian Bond decried how America honors “an antiseptic hero. We have stripped his life of controversy, and celebrate the conventional instead.”

“People tend to want a manageable hero, one who can fit into our own relatively narrow confines of what is important in America,” said Vincent Harding, author of “Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero.” “And King it seems to me was constantly breaking out of those confines.”

Recollections of the real man
The documentary combines recollections and eyewitness accounts from friends, civil rights leaders, journalists, officials and historians with King’s own words and footage from those turbulent times. It spans the period just before King’s hopeful “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963, to his assassination on a Memphis motel balcony on April 4, 1968.

The first half of the two-hour film charts King’s success at pressuring downtown Birmingham, Ala., merchants to desegregate stores, after images of protesters attacked by police dogs and fire hoses horrified the nation. In Washington, King spoke of his dream that his four children would one day be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. He received the Nobel Peace Prize the next year.

The film’s second hour chronicles a turning point, when King was faced with increasingly impatient blacks who adopted the “black power” slogan and a more militant attitude. Riots exploded in the Watts section of Los Angeles, and when King attended community meetings, blacks booed him and told him he wasn’t needed there.

“As he got to the dilemma of poor blacks in the inner cities, he was becoming more radical,” journalist David Halberstam says in the film.

King was also at the center of another debate dividing the nation: the Vietnam War. In an April 1967 speech at U.N. Plaza in New York, he deplored how “the promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam, making the poor white and Negro bear the heaviest burden both at the front and at the home.”

King embarked on the Poor People’s Campaign in the final year of his life, traveling from city to city and listening to individuals’ stories. “We are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars on the radical redistribution of economic power,” he explained to one group.

In the midst of that campaign, he went to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. After a stunned nation learned of his death there, riots swept dozens of cities, and the interpretation of his life began.

While King should be remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech, he should also be remembered “as the critic of the economic order, the critic of American imperial designs overseas, of our gross maldistribution of wealth and power,” said Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “a man who asked hard questions and demanded difficult answers.

“Unless you remember all of that, you’re not remembering the whole man.”