Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Lesson in the Weapon of Love

I'd be the first to admit that my MLK knowledge was not all it should be.

That made it an easy choice to spend a Friday evening correcting that. And since in many ways it was a history lesson, I might as well write a (virtual) paper about it.

The VMFA was screening "King: A Filmed Record...Montgomery to Memphis" with the Virginia Union University concert choir performing a tribute to King first.

In line to get a ticket, I recognized the striking black woman next to me from the Marian Anderson conversation at the museum Wednesday so I introduced myself.

We got to talking and next thing I knew, we were at the theater and she sat down next to me to discuss how we'd both lived in D.C., how tough it had been at first to adjust to conservative life here and how difficult it is to fit in everything there is to do in Richmond.

She was lamenting that tonight's film was three hours long, saying she'd hoped to get up to the atrium for wine and tangoing.

Or as she so succinctly put it, "I don't need to relive the '60s, I just want to see the interviews with famous people."

No doubt she knew her MLK story far better than I do.

In red and gold robes, the VUU choir set the mood with a series of spirituals magnificently sung to the rafters. Then it was lesson time.

Host Trent warned us about the film's length, saying he hoped most of us would still be there when it ended. Sure enough, three hours was more attention span than 60% of the audience apparently had. A sad commentary on our time.

Using nothing but black and white archival (often newsreel) footage, the documentary had no narration and was chronological, starting with 1955 and King's early regional activism with the Montgomery bus boycott, contrasting carpools of black commuters and empty buses.

Next came Birmingham with its boycott of segregated businesses, but also unsettling footage of attack dogs and fire hoses used on the peaceable demonstrators.

I never want to see a dog bite down on a man's arm again. Ever.

Even worse was the footage of bombings with bodies being carried out and King speaking at a funeral for one of the victims.

Reminding people that no commandment was harder than to love your enemy, he looked incredibly sad and weary. And his fight had just begun.

Interspersed with the story were celebrities of the day, meaning 1970 when this film had been made, like Harry Belafonte, Joanne Woodward, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster and, inexplicably Linc from "Mod Squad" (actor Clarence Williams III) doing recitations.

The scenes shot during the March on Washington were extraordinary, showing simple moments like hordes of people getting off buses marked "Monument Express" and heart-stopping grand ones like Mahalia Jackson singing to thousands.

The aerial shots showed a sea of white and light-colored shirts suitable for a hot, August day, with a fair number of men in suits and hats and almost everyone sitting politely in their chairs.

Notable in all the panning was that there was not a single t-shirt and no one except the press had a camera, hugely significant given that this was the greatest demonstration of freedom in the country's history.

Another thing that struck me was the young, white park ranger stationed at the podium right next to King during his "I have a dream" speech and alternately staring at King intently and scanning the crowd as if he'd have been able to do anything should trouble have erupted. Come on, he was one guy in a Dudley DoRight hat.

After King finished with "Free at last," the crowd in the theater fittingly broke out in spontaneous applause.

Then it was intermission and my new found friend decided it was time to tipple and tango and said a fond farewell to me. I couldn't have left at that point for anything.

It's not like I didn't know how it was going to turn out, but I was seeing footage I'd never seen before, granted probably because much of it was deeply disturbing, but I was curious to see what other atrocities and intimate moments might show up.

Clearly, there was a camera on King an extraordinary amount of time.

The second half began with a roomful of people singing "For He's  a Jolly Good Fellow," an unlikely lead-up to King walking through a door to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Next came Selma, Alabama in 1965 and a push for voting rights for all.

"What would happen if Jesus Christ, a black man, came to Selma and wanted to register to vote?" one of the peaceful protesters asked of the police beating them off the steps of the courthouse.

It's excruciating to watch clubs hit heads and backs of people behaving peacefully.

King countered by organizing a march to the courthouse steps with an impossibly young looking Andrew Young warning demonstrators to be sure to march on the side of the road, where they were met with cops in gas masks throwing out tear gas and beating people.

The second Selma march had lots of clergy and three Unitarian ministers were badly beaten, with one dying a few days later.

In his slow Texas drawl, we saw LBJ calling out the National Guard to Selma, which King characterized as the federal government showing its support for their cause.

Seeing 8,000 marchers walking across a bridge was awe-inspiring until you saw locals along the way waving Confederate flags and jeering at the marchers.

In one touching scene, an older nun is asked why she's there and she explains that the reasons she's marching is that the ideals of King have been her long-held beliefs.

They arrive at night and a show is put on to entertain the masses with, among others, Harry Belafonte and Peter, Paul and Mary singing and Sammy Davis, Jr. and Mike Nicols and Elaine May doing comedy (including hysterical George Wallace insulting).

The next morning, King speaks at the Capital and reminds the crowd that many had said that they'd "get their over their dead bodies." Lucky for those idiots they were wrong.

Seeing LBJ sign the voting rights act in 1966 reminded me how painfully recent that was  while teaching me that he immediately handed the pen he'd signed with to King.

Then came scenes of endless lines of black people waiting patiently to register to vote, including one wizened looking old man who had to have waited at least seven decades for the privilege.

I wasn't prepared for how bad things got in Chicago in '66 when blacks opened up a fire hydrant to cool off followed by police closing them and people getting violent about it.

It was in Chicago we first saw a young Jesse Jackson and a scene of Mahalia Jackson (with a hairdo that looked like a hideous hat on her head) singing "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho" along with the crowd.

Afterward, King called her a once in a millennium singer and said, "Anyone with a question about if we have momentum in making change, you need to be in this church tonight."

But that hopeful scene was followed by a demonstration with the angry whites of Chicago sporting "white power" signs and swastikas, throwing Molotov cocktails and bricks and screaming obscenities at the protesters as they walked quietly along.

Even King was shocked. "Mississippi, Alabama, I've never seen as hostile a crowd as Chicago. Ever."

So much for north/south stereotypes.

We saw King begin to speak out against the Vietnam war followed by horrific footage of injured soldiers in the field, the kind of shots that would never have made it on TV in the '60s.

Fortunately, that was soon followed by a scene of King's birthday, with staffers giving him joke gifts like a tin cup that said, "We are cooperating with LBJ's war on poverty. Please drop coins and bills in cup."

Talk about haunting, a scene in a small plane of King talking about the possibility of death being an ever-increasing one for him was prescient and tragic.

By the time the film got to Memphis and the sanitation workers' strike, even I knew we were close to the end.

So did King who at that point questions what could happen to him from "some sick white brother."

His death is revealed when a group waiting for a performance to begin is told that King has been shot and died. The gasp/shriek from the assembled people is heart-wrenching to hear.

So is seeing his coffin put on a plane to go home.

It seems like there are hundreds of guests at the funeral - Jackie Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, RFK and Ethel (especially poignant since his time was so near, too), Brando, Sammy Davis, Jr., Sidney Poitier, Nixon - but none so grief-stricken looking as Coretta King.

She requested that one of his speeches be played at the funeral, the one where he says he doesn't want to be remembered for his Nobel Prize or any of his awards, just his love and service of humanity and that he left a committed life behind.

The film ends with his coffin being put on a horse-drawn caisson and hundreds of people follow it or stand to the side to watch it pass as it's pulled to the cemetery.

It reminded me that in one of the very first speeches shown in the film, King said that for this movement, "We must use the weapon of love."

Hell of a history lesson and long overdue.

As a side note, apparently "Mod Squad" mattered mightily in 1970. Who knew?

No comments:

Post a Comment