The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., more than most civil rights leaders, understood the singular role that television played in documenting the brutality of racial violence on African-Americans and eliciting sympathy from white viewers. As three new television documentaries marking the 50th anniversary of his assassination show, King embraced prime time news television coverage as a matter of political strategy and survival through his savvy use of sound bites, well-timed protests and the practice of nonviolence in the face of abuse.
These documentaries share much in common. They feature some familiar civil rights voices, most notably those of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activists John Lewis and Diane Nash, and reveal how King’s relationships with the news media and the movement waned dramatically in his final years. And they attempt to present a more radical version of King to a new generation of viewers, with varying degrees of success.
“Hope & Fury: MLK, the Movement and the Media,” which aired on NBC in late March and returns on MSNBC on April 1, is a two-hour documentary about the strained yet symbiotic relationship between civil rights activists and the emergent nightly television news. “We felt there was so much hagiography of the movement and a flattening of the characters into a one-dimensional portrait,” said Rachel Dretzin, a producer and co-director; Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, is executive producer. “The decision to focus on the political savvy and the sophistication of King and other leaders of the movement ended up making it much more dimensional and interesting to us.”