Documentary explores last years of King's life

Sunday, January 18, 2004

For many, he is frozen in a single, triumphant moment, the stirring cadences of his "I Have a Dream" speech rolling over the crowds gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in the summer of 1963.

On the federal holiday honoring his birth, Martin Luther King Jr. is usually remembered as the beloved winner of great civil rights victories.

But there's another, lesser-known King -- the man who moved into a drafty, run-down flat in a Chicago slum to call attention to the plight of poor urban blacks, and who preached fiery sermons against the war in Vietnam, denouncing "Western arrogance."

In the last five years of his life, King ventured down a contentious, sometimes lonely path as he tried to refashion the civil rights movement he helped inspire. This often overlooked period of his life is the subject of "Citizen King," a documentary airing on PBS stations at 8 p.m. Monday the King holiday.

"We felt that there was a much more complicated and more challenging voice that emerged after the March on Washington," said Orlando Bagwell, who directed, wrote and co-produced the documentary with Noland Walker. As the nation celebrates the 75th anniversary of King's birth, "we should engage in a much more critical discussion of King and talk about all the things we agree with and disagree with."

King's final years have been receiving more attention from academics and historians concerned about the one-dimensional, idealized version of him that has come to dominate America's memory.

Baptist minister and scholar Michael Eric Dyson proposed a 10-year moratorium on listening to or reading "I Have a Dream," in his 2000 book, "I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr." And in a 1993 op-ed piece, longtime activist Julian Bond decried how America honors "an antiseptic hero. We have stripped his life of controversy, and celebrate the conventional instead."

"People tend to want a manageable hero, one who can fit into our own relatively narrow confines of what is important in America," said Vincent Harding, author of "Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero." "And King it seems to me was constantly breaking out of those confines."

The documentary combines recollections and eyewitness accounts from friends, civil rights leaders, journalists, officials and historians with King's own words and footage from those turbulent times.

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