Sunday, March 25, 2018

Hope and Fury: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Movement and the Media (NBC-TV, aired March 24, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I spent much of the evening watching a compelling documentary on NBC-TV, Hope and Fury: Martin Luther King, the Movement and the Media, timed for the approaching 50th anniversary of King’s assassination and promoted (less on NBC itself than its cable news channel, MS-NBC) as a documentary comparison of the ways King and his associates handled the media with what’s going on now with the Black Lives Matter movement. There was surprisingly little comparison — just brief clips of the actions in Ferguson and Charlottesville (though the Charlottesville clips were especially chilling following some footage of early-1960’s anti-integration riots by racist whites, including one young man with a “skinhead” haircut, short even by pre-Beatles 1960’s standards, who would have looked right at home in Charlottesville … and indeed it’s all too easy to imagine his grandsons marching with the neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis at Charlottesville) — but it was an interesting story nonetheless, narrated by African-American NBC news host Lester Holt (you remember, the man to whom President Trump confessed in front of millions of viewers that he did fire FBI director James Comey over the Russia investigation) and whose presence, along with those of other modern-day Black Americans in professional jobs, was itself an indication of how far we’ve come. The story as told by NBC begins in Mississippi with the lynching, beating and murder of Emmett Till and its coverage, not by the white press, but by the Black press. It was Jet magazine — generally known as a lightweight who’s-who-in-Black-entertainment paper — which first published the notorious photo of Till’s corpse, which showed he had been so brutally beaten before he was killed his face had turned from an attractive young African-American male into something that looked like makeup for the monster in a bad horror movie — which led the exposé of the Till case. The show then documented the emergence of King as a civil rights leader in the 1955-1956 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger — a story I’m familiar with mainly from King’s own memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, in which he describes himself as virtually an accidental leader, just the one of Montgomery’s Black ministers who emerged as the head of the boycott and applied the philosophy of Satyagraha (literally “soul force”), the power of nonviolent resistance to oppression, Mahatma Gandhi had used to lead the ultimately successful campaign to end British colonial rule of India.

Not all the big civil rights stories of the period directly involved King, and NBC’s writers don’t pretend they did: the next segment after the Montgomery bus boycott introduces King as a character is about the 1957 campaign to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas and the ferocity of the white resistance it evoked, not only from white mobs in the streets (though King wasn’t directly involved, the people leading the struggle followed his example of passive resistance in the face of white violence) but from Arkansas’ governor, Orval Faubus (about whom Charles Mingus wrote a song, “Fables of Faubus” — “Who’s the guy that’s the most ridiculous?/Faubus, Faubus” — which during Watergate he changed to “Fables of Nixon”), who called in the Arkansas National Guard (the successor to the “well-regulated militias” of the 18th and 19th centuries referenced in the Second Amendment that, according to historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, were organized to keep the Native Americans from taking back the land we’d stolen from them and also to keep African-American slaves from escaping) and had them keep the nine African-American students who had decided to enroll in Central High School from defiling its sacred all-white precincts. The grimmest story was that though all nine students were supposed to go in together to the school’s 14th Street entrance, one girl missed that information because her parents didn’t have a telephone — so she showed up on her own at the 16th Street entrance, got the full force of the white racist threats literally in her face, and was so shaken up and traumatized she refused to speak to white reporters, though she did drop her guard long enough when a Black reporter from an independent Black paper showed up and she agreed to talk to him.

Last night’s documentary on NBC, Hope and Fury, continued its potted history of the 1960’s civil rights movement after the 1957 school desegregation showdown in Little Rock, Arkansas with a brief segment on the 1960 lunch-counter sit-ins that launched the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the civil rights career of the man who more than anyone else gets trotted out as a living icon of the civil rights movement if only because he’s about the last remaining participant and leader who’s still alive, Georgia Congressmember John Lewis. (He’s aged so oddly the footage of him now is virtually unrecognizable as the same person he was in the early 1960’s, when he marched beside Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Alabama and a famous photo shows them together just before the police broke up the demonstration.) Then there was an interesting segment on one of the least known of the civil-rights campaign King led: one in Albany, Georgia in 1962 aimed at ending the local ordinances that enforced segregation even beyond what the state mandated. King got outsmarted that time by Albany’s police chief, Laurie Pritchard (a man, and one who was smart enough to pronounce the “t” in “often”), who carefully instructed his officers not to attack the civil-rights protesters or rough them up in any way, but just quietly, efficiently and peacefully to arrest them. The white media from New York who had come to cover King’s latest campaign left in disgusted boredom because Pritchard’s arrests were just dull — not suitable fodder for sensationalism on the network news shows (which had just expanded from 15 to 30 minutes per night) — and though the Albany City Council did make some pro forma revisions of their local segregation ordinances, the campaign was widely regarded as a King failure. One wonders how Pritchard restrained not only the police officers who were responsible to him but the white crowds in Albany from committing racist violence against the Blacks. Then there’s a brief segment on the one-man campaign by Air Force veteran James Meredith to integrate the University of Mississippi in Oxford, colloquially known as “Ole Miss,” in October 1962 despite the determination not only of Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett but a good chunk of the townspeople to keep Ole Miss all-white — it’s here that this film’s director intercut sequences of the riots in Oxford in 1962 to the ones in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 (the ones of which President Trump said there were both good and bad people “on both sides,” equating the neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates who came to Charlottesville aiming to foment violence with the anti-racists who came there to resist them) to show how identical both the motives of the white racist rioters were in each case and their tactics. 

Then the documentary showed the campaign King led in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, in which the local police chief, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, gave him everything he wanted in terms of showing the world what white racism looked like up close and personal that Laurie Pritchard in Albany had been savvy enough to avoid. Connor famously turned firehoses and dogs on not only adult protesters but the children King and his fellow organizers recruited to march, and the images of kids being pushed down the streets with high-pressure water and chased down with dogs had the desired effect: millions of Americans were shocked into action, white people began joining the movement en masse and President Kennedy finally committed, after 2 ½ years of dithering on the issue, to put the full weight of the White House behind the civil rights bill then languishing in Congress. (Ironically, the 1964 Civil Rights Act almost certainly would never have passed if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated: Georgia Senator Richard Russell, who led the opposition to it, said later, “We could have beaten John Kennedy. We could never have beaten Lyndon Johnson.”) There follows a segment on the 1963 March on Washington, which the program rather hagiographically depicts as King’s idea even though Gay Black activist Bayard Rustin originally had had the idea and indeed had been pushing it on the rest of the movement for 20 years; we get a bit of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech without any of its interesting background — that King had come prepared to deliver a rather ponderous and dull speech on the history of Southern racism when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who’d been invited to perform, saw he was bombing and started yelling at him, “Give ’em the dream, Martin!” The next checkpoint in the civil rights movement’s history was the Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign to register Black voters in 1964, in which white volunteers came down from Northeastern and Midwestern college campuses, were warned they were literally taking their lives into their hands, and three volunteers — whites Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and Black James Chaney — were murdered outside a small town in a conspiracy that turned out to include the local sheriff and his principal deputy. (My mom, who was heavily involved in support for the civil rights movement, had a picture of the two of them, who looked like the stereotypical stupid and obese white Southern law enforcers, with the ironic caption “SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL POLICE.”) 

The incident made a media star of Schwerner’s wife Rita — there are clips from 1964 in which she’s become a sort of diva of martyrdom while Chaney’s wife is complaining bitterly that the media wouldn’t have paid any attention to her if her husband had been killed with two other Black people instead of two whites — and, along with the bitter confrontation in early 1965 in Selma, Alabama in which the local sheriff, Jim Clark, showed he was just as crazy and insensitive in how open racism and violence against civil-rights marchers would “play” in the rest of the country, led President Johnson to push the 1965 Voting Rights Act through Congress. The show illustrates this with a clip from Johnson’s famous speech in which he began, “I speak tonight for the dignity of man,” and ended quoting the famous anthem of the civil rights movement, the old Black church hymn “We Shall Overcome.” Selma and the subsequent passage of the Voting Rights Act were the high points of what Michael Harrington later called the “Beloved Community,” the coalition of Blacks and whites that had come together to make the campaigns of the early 1960’s and the resulting passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act possible. The film then cuts to the emergence of Stokely Carmichael as the new head of SNCC in 1966 and his evasive answers to media questions as to whether he was advocating that the civil-rights movement become violent. One fascinating thing about this documentary is that it makes Carmichael and his proclamation of “Black Power” — a phrase that had almost as many definitions as it had adherents, though what it seemed to me to be was taking the basically sound idea that the liberation of oppressed community X must be the work of X people themselves and running it into the ground, not only rejecting but actively driving away white allies and in some ways becoming almost as racist as the white supremacy it was officially against — seem like it had come out of nowhere. 

The show totally ignores that before Carmichael there had been Malcolm X, who had openly criticized King’s insistence on only “passive resistance” and said that he called it not violence but “self-defense” for Blacks to fight back against white violence. It attributes the rise of “Black Power” mainly to the impatience of younger African-Americans who didn’t think King and his strategies were bringing equality fast enough — and it also shows the frustrations of King’s last years, including the failed struggle to bring an end to housing discrimination in Chicago and its almost all-white suburb of Cicero (otherwise known as the home base of gangster Al Capone in the 1920’s). Though the so-called “white backlash” had already been in evidence in the North as early as 1964 — when George Wallace successfully challenged Lyndon Johnson in the Wisconsin primary for the Democratic Presidential nomination — the opposition with which King’s efforts were met in the North was a lesson to him that there were a lot of whites who would support civil-rights campaigns in the South but not in their own backyards. One bizarre omission in the program is the lack of any mention of the Viet Nam war, which not only split the “Beloved Community” even further but opened up fissures within the civil rights movement itself (Bayard Rustin, who’d been a conscientious objector in World War II, supported Viet Nam mainly because he thought it was important to maintain the movement’s alliance with President Johnson, while King regarded Viet Nam as a moral issue first and foremost and was one of the earliest and most eloquent U.S. opponents of the war) and drove a wedge between President Johnson and the white Left, which was one of the big factors in the defeat of the Democratic Party in the 1968 Presidential election and the rise of the Right-wing coalition (in 1968 Richard Nixon and George Wallace between them got 57 percent of the Presidential vote to Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent) that has largely dominated American politics ever since. 

The show also only hints at how radical King was becoming in his final years, not only getting involved in a union organizing campaign for garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee (which is what he was doing when he was killed) but organizing the “Poor People’s Campaign” for Washington, D.C., an encampment/tent city that was supposed to last two months and dramatize income inequality in the U.S. King never officially declared himself a socialist but he was pretty clearly moving in that direction towards the end, towards a broader critique not only of U.S. racism but of capitalism in general. The Poor People’s Campaign is not mentioned in this show at all, though if anything NBC deserves credit for presenting King as a deeper, richer and more radical figure than the anodyne version who’s been enshrined in the American pantheon, the one who famously said he wanted his four children “to be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” — just about the only thing King said the modern-day American Right likes to quote. (Among other things, they use that quote to suggest King would have opposed affirmative-action programs — when in fact he explicitly supported them.) Overall, I would guess this show is as good a portrait of King and his relationship to the media — and in particular the odd moral position he, like Gandhi before him, was put in because in order to make his political points and achieve the public impact he wanted, he had to put the people he was asking to join him in direct physical danger and risk their lives. The show closes with a discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement and how it’s taking place in a very different media landscape, where the “gatekeeper” function of the three major TV networks and the big-city newspapers has largely disappeared and the Internet in general and social media in particular have enabled activists to upload and communicate with each other and get their message out without mediation. 

One thing the show didn’t mention is that the U.S. media have largely reverted to what they were in the 19th century, when openly partisan media competed with each other; today you have a universe of Right-wing outlets, including talk radio and Fox News, that not only communicate an openly propagandist message to their adherents but shape how many Americans — including the current President, who not only gets virtually all his information from Fox News but is in the process of staffing his administration with a lot of their people — see the world and their place in it. I would say there’s an inevitable sense of how-far-we’ve-come-and-how-far-we-still-have-to-go about this show; today, in Donald Trump, the U.S. has the most openly racist President in our history since Woodrow Wilson, and both his public statements and his actual policies (including the bill he’s supporting to slash documented immigration into the U.S. in half and institute a “merit-based” immigration system that’s designed to reverse the demographic trends that are increasing the proportion of the U.S. population composed of people of color — Trump’s price for letting the “Dreamer” kids stay in the U.S. is that the Democrats agree to this horrible bill whose purpose is, and whose effect would be, to “Make America White Again”) show it. What’s more, he was elected by an older, whiter slice of America that really does want to see all those “uppity” [insert racist epithets here] put back “in their place” and want a white supremacist America even if they don’t necessarily call it that. The U.S. Supreme Court’s evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Republicans’ determination to use the end of federal “pre-clearance” of state election laws in the South to exclude as many voters of color as possible is more evidence of the determination of the people currently in charge of this country to reverse the gains of the civil rights movement and restore what they consider to be the “natural order” of white supremacy.