This 1965 interview with Martin Luther King, Jr. is a reminder that TV journalism was once journalism. And also a warning not picture the 1960s as some Golden Age of TV journalism. It's pretty obvious that the questions were more focused on the elements of excitement and fashionable Washington Beltway topics than on policy substance. But the Beltway priorities in topics were more sensible than what we see today.
With David Gregory on 2031's version of Meet the Press, they would have given King about half the screen time. And Dancin' Dave would have questioned him about the latest rumor about an affair he might be having, proceeded to ask him to speculate on the effect his movement would have on the next Presidential election horse race, played some "gotcha" clip of him saying something five years before that sounds superficially different from what he's saying now, and closed by asking him to speculate on how gangsta rap might be affecting African-American youth.
The thing that strikes me in particular is that King was able to define what were radical political tactics in the then-existing context in terms that were accessible to the average person. He used inclusive religious language, for instance, talking about the moral order. And he was willing to challenge the apathy and jibe the moral conscience of white citizens in Alabama who did have the right to vote and who were mostly sitting back in approval as George Wallace and the Ku Klux Klan were running wild.
The right to vote was a central concern for him in this interview, though he insisted that other situations like "police brutality" were as degrading and humiliating to black citizens as denial of the right to vote.
He stressed the need to fight poverty with public policy.
James Kilpatrick, a staunch defender of segregation, is one of journalists interviewing King. Also included is Tom Wicker, who despite a liberal reputation certainly seemed to be asking probing questions requiring King to defend his positions.
King describes his Ghandian concept of defying unjust laws, including the willing to accept the legal penalty for violating an unjust law in order to appeal to the conscience of the nation. He refers to the Boston Tea Party as a prime example of civil disobedience - which I would not, involved the deliberate destruction of property. (Without getting into it further here, I agree with Daniel Ellsberg that Edward Snowden was right to leave the country in his case. Snowden was not practicing Ghandian civil disobedience, he was leaking vital information about government wrongdoing.)
It's notable that King also recognizes that the court system can be a key weapon of oppression and illegality. He uses the term "reign of terror" to describe the conditions under George Wallace's gubernatorial administration in Alabama at the time. And he calls Alabama "a society that has refused to protect life and the right to vote."
At around 22:30, he says, Realism impels me to admit, however, that when there is justice and the pursuit of justice, violence disappears. And where there is injustice and frustration, the potentialities for violence are greater."
King was not an advocate of political violence. But he also didn't shrink from discussing the realities of violence, including violence generating by brutal social conditions imposed on entire communities, at that time.
In a helpful article that JSTOR has apparently made generally available, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" in Context: Ceremonial Protest and African
American Jeremiad College English 62:1 (Sept 1999), Elizabeth Vander Lei and Keith Miller discuss King's use of the rhetorical device of the jeremiad in his most famous speech:
In a jeremiad, the speaker adopts the stance of a prophet-outcast, evoking Old and New Testament prophets such as Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist. These prophets went into the wilderness to discern God's voice and returned to communicate that message to the rest of the community. In African American jeremiads, the speaker signals this position of alienation through metaphor and scriptural allusion rather than through social isolation.King was experienced in using religious language that was inclusive and inspiring, including Biblical references that were presumably somewhat more familiar to the average American in 1963 than today. And he could make moral appeals situated in familiar patriotic and American historical symbolism.
The rhetorical structure of African American jeremiads is threefold: a consideration of the freedom promises in America's founding documents, a detailed criticism of America's failure to fulfill this promise, and a prophecy that America will achieve its promised greatness and enjoy unparalleled happiness.
King was a protester. He was trying to make people uncomfortable, to challenge them to see their daily reality in a new way. But this wasn't just some generic personality quirk. He was protesting the institutions of white racism. He wanted to make people uncomfortable about the denial of rights to black Americans. He wanted to challenge people to see that poverty was a problem for all of society, not just for the people directly affected at a given moment.
Vander Lei and Miller also write:
The first structural element of a jeremiad, a consideration of the freedom promises in America's founding documents, relies on standard citations from these documents, the so-called sacred texts of American civil religion: the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation. Long before the Emancipation Proclamation, African American abolitionists claimed the bright American promise by soaking their discourse in the Bible and by citing the Declaration of Independence (especially the phrase "all men are created equal"), a document which they sometimes conflated with the Constitution. For example, in 1813 African American James Forten cited Thomas Jefferson's affirmation that "all men are created equal" to argue the equality of all races, including "the Peruvian and the Laplander, the white man and the African". Leading white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, in the first issue of The Liberator, contended that this phrase called for the immediate end to slavery. In fact, upon analyzing a large sample of abolitionist rhetoric, Celeste Condit and John Lucaites discovered that one-third of the documents they examined referred directly to the promises contained in the Declaration of Independence.This is why I use Andrew Jackson at this blog as a symbol of progressive democracy. Not because he right on all his major policies; his Indian policy was bad by the standards of his own time. But because he was an important symbol for the movement of Jacksonian democracy that expanded democracy, strengthened national unity on the basis of a commitment to democracy, and developed new forms of grassroots political organizing that benefited labor, Abolitionists and Native American activists, often going far beyond the measures that Jackson himself championed.
And this is why that I not only want to see history done right, in both its professional and amateur versions, but I also want to make sure that we distinguish the constructive, democratic, progressive aspects of what actually happened in real history from the backward, reactionary and destructive aspects.
Symbolic celebrations and applications of historical imagery are not the same as writing history. But they are a very real and important part of politics and how Americans understand our national identity, however vague a concept that may be. I'm not willing to leave the progressive aspects of American history to be distorted, denied or forgotten by conservatives and reactionaries. The Christian Right does not "own" American history and neither does the Republican Party. (These days I suppose it's redundant to distinguish the Christian Right and the Republicans.)
As we see in the interview above, the real existing Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to speak in moral and patriotic terms that effectively framed his issues and were easily accessible to his American listeners of all races. And, yes, he was willing to make some white people angry and to shame them over segregation and white racism.
Tags: civil rights movement, martin luther king jr., white racism