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HBO’s 'King in the Wilderness' Takes On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last Act

Next week, on April 4, it will be 50 years to the day since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. He was nine months shy of his 40th birthday, standing outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis, dressed to go to dinner at a friend’s house. The bullet entered into his jaw, ripping off his necktie, then tearing through his jugular. A racist small-time crook named James Earl Ray would be arrested for the murder, would plead guilty, and then recant, maintaining his innocence until his death in prison likely from complications of hepatitis C 30 years later.

King was in Memphis to support the city’s striking sanitation workers. Earlier that day, Andrew Young, his friend and executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, returned from court having been part of the team that had successfully argued against an injunction blocking their planned protest. The civil rights leaders celebrated with a pillow fight.

The night prior, Dr. King had delivered what would be his last sermon, a soaring address to a crowd assembled at Mason Temple. It became known as his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, so called for his closing metaphor, in which King cast himself as a latter-day Moses, having led his people through that long desert slog, doomed to glimpse Israel only from afar. “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place,” he proclaimed. “But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”

It’s eerie to watch this with 21st-century hindsight, eerier still because of what happens next: King leaves the stage and collapses—exhausted, possibly ill—into the arms of an awaiting friend. Days later, his father, known as Daddy King, would mirror this, howl in grief, and crumple into the arms of two attendants after glimpsing his son’s corpse in his casket. But if the younger King’s words suggested he was resigned to death, prophetically aware of what was to come, his face—giddy; relieved—told a more complicated story.

Had King survived his trip to Memphis, that evening’s remarks might have been remembered as his “If I Had Sneezed” speech, owing to another rhetorical device, in which he recalled being stabbed in 1958 by Izola Ware Curry, a paranoid schizophrenic woman who plunged a letter opener into his chest as he signed copies of his memoir Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story at a Harlem department store. The blade of her makeshift weapon came perilously close to King’s aorta, so close that doctors told him, “If I had merely sneezed, I would have died.” He remembered a note sent to him in the hospital by a ninth-grade girl in White Plains, New York, writing just to say: “I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

Had he sneezed, he explained, he wouldn’t have been there for the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, or the Freedom Rides of 1961; would not have been in Birmingham in 1963 (so would not have penned “Letter From Birmingham Jail”); would not have organized the March on Washington, delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, seen the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or marched in Selma in 1965. He certainly wouldn’t be in Memphis supporting the sanitation workers. There but for the grace of God went he: One sneeze and he would neither have seen the Promised Land nor been around to guide his fellow wanderers through the wilderness.

That litany of all that might not have happened amounts, essentially, to the greatest hits of the civil rights movement. But what King leaves out—everything that transpired between Selma and Memphis, between 1965 and 1968—is just as interesting. That, at least, is the theory behind King in the Wilderness, a new documentary premiering Monday on HBO from Emmy winner Peter Kunhardt (Becoming Warren Buffett). The film, a patchwork of archival footage of King and present-day interviews with more than a dozen of the civil rights leader’s nearest and dearest, opens with a shot of the modest two-story brick home in Atlanta where King moved his family in 1965, and ends with one of his gravestone, inscribed with the gospel lyric: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last.” These two images neatly bookend the last three years of his life, but they also gesture at a broader idea of King as a man who could not quite be contained—not by domesticity, which so often came second to the struggle; not by his fragile mortal coil; not even by the quest for civil rights, at least in the narrow way that others would have him define it.

A favorite King saying, and one frequently invoked by President Obama: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The last three years of the civil rights leader’s life may have tested that faith. King in the Wilderness presents an unfamiliar portrait of its subject: a living legend in a down slump, contending with depression and anxiety (so much so that his doctor advised he see a psychiatrist—advice King ignored, knowing that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had been wiretapping him, and had even gone so far as to advocate, by anonymous letter, that he commit suicide to avoid the outing of his alleged extramarital affairs, and would no doubt find a way around doctor/patient privilege). This is King navigating hecklers, cynics, and detractors; fighting for the gospel of nonviolence amid bloody uprisings in cities across America, and against the rising tide of black power, as espoused by younger leaders like Stokely Carmichael.

After 1965, as King himself explains in an on-camera interview, civil rights leaders had entered “a new phase of the struggle,” one defined by the quest for “genuine equality” and not merely “decency.” The efforts of the past decade had yielded the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, legislation that constituted major gains for Southern blacks living under Jim Crow, but that did little to address the concerns of those in the North: lack of access to fair, safe housing and economic opportunity—per King’s own metaphor, less the primary tumor of the cancer of racism than its metastasis. The three evils in America, King explained—racism, economic exploitation of poverty, and militarization—were “tied inextricably together” and could not be addressed in isolation.

In his last three years, King would try to take on all three, and would bump up against a plethora of roadblocks. King in the Wilderness follows him to Los Angeles in the midst of the 1965 Watts riots, as he preached nonviolence to an unreceptive audience. In 1966, hoping to get ahead of brewing unrest in Chicago, he moved with his family into an unheated apartment on the West Side, establishing a perch to take on the issue of slums and segregated housing. But in that most northern of cities, as he told his lawyer and adviser Clarence Jones, he encountered racism more virulent and extensive than what he’d found in the South (among the film’s most disturbing images: a white woman, one hand holding her nose, the other holding a sign that reads, “Where are white civil rights?”). He was met with a political machine deeply hostile to his efforts, and eventually left with only a mealy-mouthed commitment from the Chicago Real Estate Board to implement open housing practices. At the time of his death, King was working to mount a national Poor People’s Campaign, intending to bring together an interracial coalition of the dispossessed to lobby Washington for, among other things, a guaranteed annual income. And in 1967, exactly a year before his assassination, he went to New York City to speak at Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, delivering remarks in which he unequivocally denounced the war in Vietnam (jeopardizing his working relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose administration was responsible for the two major pieces of civil rights legislation). King saw Vietnam as a distraction from America’s war on poverty (“we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society”) and from the quest for civil rights (sending “young black men” eight thousand miles away “to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem”). He also saw supporting it as a profound hypocrisy for anyone championing nonviolence: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”

Coming out against the war in Vietnam now seems commonsense, but at the time, King was met with fleeing funders and scathing newspaper editorials counseling him, more or less, to get back in his lane (The New York Times headlined its piece “Dr. King’s Error,” going on to excoriate him for compromising the racial cause by linking it with the anti-war movement). It’s surprising to learn that it was controversial to find those connections among issues of race, class, and American imperialism: Now we call that intersectional activism, and it’s the name of the game. But it’s equally surprising to hear just how radical King could sound, particularly given our present-day tendency to see his allegiance to nonviolence as somehow less radical than the stances held by, say, the Black Panthers. One audio clip in particular stands out: “Everybody’s on welfare in this country,” King explains. “When it’s white people, and rich, we call it subsidies. Suburbia was built by federally subsidized credit, and the highways and expressways that take people out there. So I think we’ve got to see that when it comes to poor people, we call it welfare, handouts, dole. But when it comes to rich people, we call it subsidies.”

Any project about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. eventually finds tension in the space between the urgent specificity of his vision (arguably more urgent now than ever) and in the martyr-like symbolism he’s acquired since his death; tension, essentially, between King the human, and King the divine. In sainting him we’ve also calcified him, reduced him to a static series of clips and sound-bites, and filed down his edges (another more hagiographic documentary, I Am MLK Jr., will also premiere next week, on the Paramount Network). King in the Wilderness rediscovers some color and texture. This was a man, remembers his friend Harry Belafonte, with a taste for Bristol Cream sherry, a man, Andrew Young pointedly observes, who was not running “a program of personal piety.” (The folk singer Joan Baez, whom the FBI fingered as one of King’s mistresses, drives that point home without directly addressing those rumors: “It’s important for us to see that you can go on doing the good works and have slipped and fallen, or gotten drunk, or womanized, or whatever.”) He was also a man who joked about his own death, who liked to deliver off-the-cuff (slightly offensive) faux-eulogies for his friends to lighten the mood. “He had everybody laughing at what was a life-and-death situation,” Young observes, then adds: “mostly his life.”

When we revisit King’s final speech, it’s easy to see him as a mystical soothsayer, but it’s more accurate to say that he was someone who lived under the constant threat of both character assassination and actual assassination. (Context is key: Had he survived Memphis, that speech would have been the one where he predicted narrowly avoiding death; instead, it’s the one in which he foretold it.) King in the Wilderness is fundamentally about the not knowing and what that does to even the strongest person. Young remembers a King-ism: “He used to say if you’re really going to be free, you have to overcome the love of wealth and the fear of death.” This is King—less Moses, more Martin—struggling to be free.

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