King of (Media) Kings

Today’s guest post is by Robert Greene II, who is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of South Carolina. He is a weekly blogger and book review editor for the Society for U.S. Intellectual History. His dissertation is a study of African Americans, the Democratic Party, and Southern Identity from 1965 until 1994. Mr. Greene​’s interests include African American intellectual history, Southern Identity, and the use of memory in American political history since 1945.

Next week at the S-USIH blog I’ll be posting a review of the new film Selma. This week I’ll take a look at some of the notable portrayals of Martin Luther King, Jr. on television. It’s particularly interesting to note that this is the first feature film to focus on King, although Selma is not meant to be a biopic on King’s life. Still, Selma has already generated plenty of buzz on a variety of fronts. It’s garnered critical acclaim from critics. Among historians, it has re-ignited a debate about the legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson in regard to civil rights. At a deeper level, this debate has reminded many historians of the arguments about top-down versus bottom-up history. Does one deserve more treatment over the other? Or should historians try, as difficult as it is, to strike the correct balance between understanding what activists did on the ground against the people and groups that formed the political and social structures they struggled against (and sometimes worked with)?

These are valuable questions to consider. But today I’d like to look backwards—to another moment when King was portrayed on screen. For the most part, it’s been small-screen treatments of Dr. King. Most notable is the 1978 miniseries King, starring Paul Winfield in the titular role. 1 My post today will focus mostly on this miniseries. We shouldn’t forget Jeffery Wright’s young, up and coming Martin Luther King, Jr. in Boycott (2001) or the tortured, weary King played by Jason Bernard in the PBS American Playhouse staging of the play The Meeting (1989). But I’m focused on this one due to not just the timing—ten years after King’s death and during an explosion of African American faces on television—but due to NBC’s attempt to make King a miniseries on par with another classic centered on the African American experience.

Premiering in February 1978 on NBC, King has been largely overshadowed by other miniseries made during the era. Roots comes to mind—a 1977 production by NBC based upon the Alex Haley work. But where Roots (and the too-often forgotten Roots: The Next Generations) covered the epic story of one man’s family from West Africa to the Deep South of the United States, King was the story of an individual who would become a well-known leader in the United States.

The miniseries doesn’t begin with King first rising to prominence in Montgomery during the bus boycott of 1955. It begins, in fact, with his march in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. This march is best known for the violence that surrounded it—a moment that crystallized for many national leaders King’s increasing irrelevance to national debates about race, North or South. Starting here presents the viewer with a depressed King, instead of a young leader (as they’d have if they started in 1955) or a triumphant national figure of stature (which is what they’d have if they started in 1964, and from what I can gather, is where Selma begins with King winning the Nobel Peace Prize in ’64).

For a few reasons, starting in ’68 makes sense. For reasons of drama, it makes perfect sense to begin with King at a low point. Also, for the sake of storytelling, beginning near the end of King’s life allows the producers of King to then step back and reveal to the viewer how King’s life brought him to Memphis in 1968. But I’d also argue it points to how Americans were still struggling with King’s legacy in 1978, ten years after his assassination and long after the end of the Civil Rights Movement.

The miniseries itself is one of Winfield’s finest performances. Still, the fact that the miniseries takes numerous licenses with the history of the Civil Rights Movement—most notably, featuring a meeting between King and Malcolm X in Chicago and making no effort to explain to the viewer that the two men only met once at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.—weakens what history can be learned from the miniseries. It’s unfortunate, too, as there’s been no attempt at a dramatized miniseries about King’s life since that time.

Reaction to the series was tepid at best. It was a ratings disaster for NBC, garnering little of the national attention that went to Roots the previous year. Nielsen ratings for King only averaged 13.8 compared to 44.9 for Roots. Why did King do so bad? “I know the story, I know the man,” said a patron at a Harlem restaurant when asked by New York Times reporter Carey Winfrey why he didn’t watch the miniseries. 2 Unlike Roots, the events of King were well remembered by many of the viewers. Within this is another reason: everyone knew the ending to King. There’s no leaving out the assassination of King, nor was it possible to leave out the isolation of King following his radical turn in 1967-68.

African Americans had no wish to re-live the tumult of the previous twenty years. However, the late 1970s were also the time in which the drive to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday gained steam, as more states began to make it a state holiday and John Conyers of Michigan continued to introduce the bill in Congress. This was also the period of the Bakke decision, which scaled back affirmative action. Jimmy Carter, president of the United States, depended on African American voters as part his slim margin of victory in 1976 against Gerald Ford. No one wanted to forget King or the issues activists spoke out against in the 1960s and were continuing to tackle into the late 1970s.

What’s also interesting about the response to King was the fissures it revealed among African Americans. Some activists, such as Ralph Albernathy, spoke out against the series and believed it undercut the contributions of a wide variety of people (including himself). Others, such as Andrew Young (at this point U.S. ambassador to the U.N.) believed the series to be mostly accurate. Notable other figures angered by King included Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X, who believed the miniseries created a Malcolm whose “philosophy was based on hate.” Still others asked about the near-invisibility of the NAACP or SNCC in the movie. The most interesting response to the miniseries was from Coretta Scott King, who according to Roger Wilkins “defend(ed) the film as a drama…rather than a documentary.” 3

Creative license and drama are at the heart of the current controversy over Selma. The portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson, in particular, has drawn plenty of fire from both those who served in the Johnson administration, and from historians who worry that the public will draw the wrong conclusions about LBJ’s support of voting rights from the film. Should the movie be harshly criticized for how it portrays Johnson? Or is this simply due to, as Jamelle Bouie argues, the desire of director Ava DuVernay to make the film about “the men and women who fought to put voting rights on the national agenda”? The portrayal of LBJ and the grassroots activism in Selma represents a much larger debate among historians about the top-down versus the bottom-up. I’ll address these concerns next week in my review of Selma at the S-USIH blog.

  1. The miniseries in its entirety can be watched on Youtube. Also, it’s being re-released on DVD this month to coincide with the national release of Selma.
  2. Carey Miller, “$5 Million TV Documentary Show is Regarded as a Ratings Disaster,” New York Times¸ p. 67.
  3. Roger Wilkins, “Controversy on Film’s Accuracy Flares Up Among Black Activists,” New York Times, p. 67. What’s really intriguing to consider here is that King had several civil rights and black political icons in the miniseries in cameo roles. Julian Bond, for example, played himself; Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson had a cameo as a critic of King; and the King children all had small roles—most notably Yolanda King as Rosa Parks.
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Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. He is the author of 'To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement' (Kent State University Press, 2014) and 'Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism' (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.

Comments on “King of (Media) Kings

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    Robert: Great post, great topic, and great presentation. But your quality work is old news to USIHers! 🙂

    Question: Did the 1978 King miniseries attempt a bottom-up or top-down portrayal? This may seem like a question with an obvious answer given its title, but some person-focused portrayals do a better job than others of showing teamwork and multiple players.

    If the King series was top-down, how far back did it go chronologically? I ask because I wonder about its portrayal of LBJ.

    On reception, the “I know the story. I know the man” quote makes me wonder what does, in fact, create interest and buzz in recent histories (whether on TV or otherwise). Must one advertise a compelling angle, or do you need buzz-worthy acting portrayals or a dominant/prominent director? Perhaps King lacked all of those things relative to 1978 (no angle, no then-compelling actors, non-prominent director/producer)?

    Thanks again for the excellent post. – TL

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    Thanks for the kind words Tim. The miniseries itself only went back to 1952–to show MLK courting Coretta Scott King while both were in Boston. Then it quickly shifts to 1955 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

    Now with LBJ, its treatment of the relationship between the two men was fairly even-handed. LBJ is shown as supporting Civil Rights and Voting Rights, but King is certainly prodding him along. With the reception element, it’s hard to say how much of a difference the casting made. Cicely Tyson played Coretta, for example. And there are some other big cameos (most notably Tony Martin playing himself). And Paul Winfield was fairly well-known at the time, at least among African American audiences, for roles in movies such as “Sounder.” But NBC poured in a lot of money for an ad blitz before the miniseries premiered–and it just didn’t seem to make much of a difference.

    I think considering this era in terms of television history is important too. There were plenty of big miniseries back then–“Roots” most notably–but there were also several great television shows starring African Americans. “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” and “Sanford and Son” among others were all on the air in this time period. But “King” just didn’t get the same kind of attention–although it did receive some critical praise in the Times (even with some of the bad history in the miniseries, such as King meeting Malcolm X).

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