On a steamy afternoon in August 1963, a thirty-four-year-old minister gave a speech that enthralled a crowd of more than two hundred thousand people gathered at Washington's Lincoln Memorial, and millions more across the country who watched on television. With passion and precision, he proclaimed his vision of a nation free of racism, declaring, "Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children."
What came to be known as the "I Have A Dream" speech was a high point in the public career of Martin Luther King, Jr. But it was also a turning point in his personal life, as he embarked on a controversial, often lonely struggle to redefine and redirect the movement he had helped lead. The quest would not end until his untimely death five years later.
American Experience presents Citizen King, a two-hour documentary from acclaimed filmmakers Orlando Bagwell (Africans in America, Malcolm X: Make It Plain) and Noland Walker (This Far by Faith, Africans in America). Citizen King explores the last five years in King's life by drawing on the personal recollections and eyewitness accounts of friends, movement associates, journalists, law enforcement officers, and historians, to illuminate this little-known chapter in the story of America's most important and influential moral leader.
"There is probably no other person in the twentieth century who was followed, scrutinized, and admired like Dr. King," says Bagwell. "His leadership, his life, his words were a part of every American family, every American classroom. The power of this story rests in the first-hand accounts of the people who worked with, walked with, reported on, or investigated the life and activities of Martin Luther King, Jr."
Framed by the Lincoln Memorial speech and his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, Citizen King traces King's effort to recast himself by embracing causes beyond the civil rights movement -- to "transform and re-structure the whole of American society" as he put it. In this brief, five-year span, his decision would alienate many of his closest friends and further inflame his enemies. King took repeated leaps of faith as he cast aside political caution in favor of following a path that would make more difficult -- and dangerous -- his already challenging life.
As he began to speak out against the war in Vietnam and refashion himself as the leader of a crusade on behalf of the poor and dispossessed in America, King was accused of abandoning his mission. But for King, the change heralded a return to his roots as a preacher and provided a welcome relief from the public persona he had reluctantly taken on years before. He traveled to big cities and small towns not to speak to poor people, but to listen to the testimony of their lives, promising them that through him a nation would hear their voices.
In April 1968, in defiance of his closest advisors, King took a side trip from his Poor People's Campaign and traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to show his support of a tense, unpredictable strike of garbage workers. He was determined to fulfill his pledge that the needs of poor and working-class people were the causes to which he must dedicate his life. His fateful decision brought about the collision of a nation's hopes and fears, as King's prophetic voice was abruptly silenced by an assassin's bullet.
After spending two weeks traveling with King in 1967, the journalist David Halberstam observed, "Dr. King has decided to represent the Ghettos... he will work in them and speak for them. If King is to speak for them truly, then his voice must reflect theirs; it, too, must be alienated, and it is likely to be increasingly at odds with the rest of American society."
Citizen King shows how, in his crusade for economic justice and an end to war, King found himself at odds not only with white American leadership, but also with many influential black leaders. He and his family were harassed daily with threats against his life and theirs. He questioned the values of his country and its preoccupation with material gain, and was distraught by the silence of a great many of his fellow Christian clergy. Yet through it all, he remained steadfast in his profound spiritual commitment to the human rights of all people and to the way of non-violence and creative peacemaking.
"This is not a film about the last days of a great leader," says Bagwell. "Rather, it is the story of a man losing fear, gaining courage and becoming great."