En­light­en­ing doc re­vis­its in­spir­ing event

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Brad Oswald

THERE prob­a­bly isn’t a per­son alive in North Amer­ica who isn’t fa­mil­iar with th­ese words, spo­ken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in the sum­mer of 1963: “I have a dream.” But what the dream en­cap­su­lated in King’s most fa­mous speech en­tailed, and how he came to de­liver it half a cen­tury ago, from the steps of the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial to an au­di­ence of nearly 300,000 peo­ple on the National Mall, are less widely known, de­spite the fact the 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton for Jobs and Freedom rep­re­sents a cru­cial turn­ing point in the U.S. civil rights move­ment.

On the eve of the event’s 50th an­niver­sary, PBS of­fers a fas­ci­nat­ing bit of back­ground de­tail in the form of The March, an hour-long doc­u­men­tary that ex­am­ines the events that in­spired the march, the work that went into or­ga­niz­ing it, and the del­i­cate po­lit­i­cal ne­go­ti­a­tions that re­sulted in a gath­er­ing that turned out to be much more peace­ful than some of Wash­ing­ton’s most pow­er­ful res­i­dents be­lieved it could be.

The film, di­rected by John Akom­frah, is a co-pro­duced (along with Smok­ing Dog Films and Cac­tus Three) by Sun­dance Pro­duc­tions, the film and TV pro­duc­tion com­pany founded last year by Robert Red­ford and for­mer Win­nipeg­ger Laura Michalchyshyn.

Nar­rated by Den­zel Wash­ing­ton, the doc­u­men­tary fea­tures in­ter­views with Nar­rated by Den­zel Wash­ing­ton Tues­day PBS dozens of ac­tivists and celebri­ties who were in the U.S. cap­i­tal half a cen­tury ago to hear King’s fa­mous ad­dress, in­clud­ing Harry Be­la­fonte, Joan Baez, Di­a­hann Car­roll and Sid­ney Poitier.

“The march had a clearly an as­pi­ra­tional com­po­nent to it,” said Clarence T. Jones, who acted as lawyer and speech­writer to King in the lead-up to the event in Wash­ing­ton. “The march had a cel­e­bra­tory com­po­nent to it — by cel­e­bra­tory, I meant it was a cel­e­bra­tion that we’ve come this far. The march was a col­lec­tive sum­mon­ing of the con­science, the moral con­science of Amer­ica. That’s what the march and assem­bly was. It was the clar­ion call to the con­science of Amer­ica that said, in so many words, that we can be a coun­try bet­ter than what we have been; that po­lice dogs, fire hoses, the con­tin­u­ance of racial seg­re­ga­tion, that’s re­ally not who we are. We can be much bet­ter than this. So, in that sense, you know, I’d say it was as­pi­ra­tional.”

In an in­ter­view ear­lier this month dur­ing PBS’s por­tion of the U.S. net­works’ sum­mer press tour in Los An­ge­les, Jones and other par­tic­i­pants in the march re­called the event as an at­tempt by King and other civil­rights ac­tivists as a bold move aimed at forc­ing the south­ern states — Ala- bama in par­tic­u­lar — to rec­og­nize the un­de­ni­able shift in Amer­i­can at­ti­tudes to­ward seg­re­ga­tion, and to push the Kennedy ad­min­is­tra­tion to ful­fil the prom­ises it had made but then largely ig­nored re­gard­ing civil-rights leg­is­la­tion.

“I think what the march did was it sent a sig­nal to the na­tion, par­tic­u­larly to the cen­ter of power, that the civil-rights move­ment, as frac­tured as it had been through the South, was no longer a re­gional move­ment, but was a national move­ment,” said Roger Mudd, who cov­ered the march for CBS in 1963.

“And then, I think, with the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Kennedy, Pres­i­dent John­son was able to use that as­sas­si­na­tion as a ma­jor lever to get the Civil Rights Bill through. But I don’t think any of that would have hap­pened with­out the march be­ing as suc­cess­ful as it was.”

Among the most in­ter­est­ing de­tails in this very en­light­en­ing film is the fact that a cru­cial part of King’s leg­endary speech was ac­tu­ally de­liv­ered off the cuff.

“Most peo­ple do not know that the speech which he ac­tu­ally gave was not the speech that he had in­tended to give,” Jones re­called. “In fact ... as he was read­ing from the text of his pre­pared speech, there came a point when (gospel singer) Mahalia Jack­son, who was sit­ting on the plat­form, said, ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.’

“When Mahalia shouted to him, I was stand­ing about 50 feet be­hind him, to the right and to the rear. And I watched him … just take the text of this speech and move it to the left side of the lectern, grab the lectern, and look out. And I said to some­body stand­ing next to me, ‘Th­ese peo­ple don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.’

“I could see his body lan­guage change from the rear, where he had been read­ing like giv­ing a lec­ture to then go­ing into his Bap­tist-preacher mode. So the rest of the speech was spon­ta­neous and ex­tem­po­ra­ne­ous. ... (There was) a cer­tain per­cent­age of the speech that he read, up un­til maybe, I would say, the sev­enth or eighth para­graph, was part of the writ­ten pre­pared text. And then he added on his own para­graphs af­ter that.”


Lead­ers of the March on Wash­ing­ton 1963.

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