The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, is one of the defining moments in American history. The new Smithsonian Channel one-hour documentary, MLK: THE ASSASSINATION TAPES, premiering during Black History Month on Sunday, February 12 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, is a chilling, immersive experience of those historic events, created almost entirely through the use of television and radio news footage from the weeks leading up to Dr. King’s visits to Memphis through the aftermath of his murder.
It is a rare accomplishment when a filmmaker can recreate the past from contemporary news reports. It was standard practice for most local stations to re-use their tapes and wipe out history, and very few local television and radio stations in Memphis preserved their footage.
But MLK: THE ASSASSINATION TAPES draws extensively from the unique materials at the Special Collections Division at The University of Memphis. When Memphis’s mostly black sanitation workers went on strike on February 11, 1968, several University faculty members, believing this was a seminal moment in the civil rights movement, began collecting every piece of media they could find – television, radio and print. When Dr. King arrived in town to lend his voice to their cause, the team from the University was already gathering material in full-force. The process continued throughout both of Dr. King’s visits – and after his killing. Much of the footage has never been seen by the public since it was first gathered in 1968…until now.
Compiling the events from authentic accounts was a difficult and painstaking task. With no narrator and with no interviews – other than those conducted by journalists at the time – producer Tom Jennings (“The Lost JFK Tapes: The Assassination”) weaves a powerful account of the events leading up to Dr. King’s murder, the shocking moment itself, and the aftermath. MLK: THE ASSASSINATION TAPES captures the roiling emotions of the Civil Rights era, when long-simmering anger on both sides of the racial divide reached a boiling point.
What led Dr. King to Memphis began when the cities’ sanitation workers went on strike to protest their poverty level wages and dangerous working conditions that led to two workers being crushed to death by a garbage compacter. From the start, Memphis city officials refused to negotiate, insisting the workers had no right to go on strike.
In March, Dr. King decided to take time off from planning his “Poverty March on Washington” to travel to Memphis to lend his voice to the sanitation workers. Unfortunately, a second visit turned into a disaster when a march through the city turned violent, with businesses being burned and looted. Dr. King was whisked out of the city over fears for his safety. The march was one of the most humiliating moments in his career. A week later, against the strong advice from his closest aides and confidantes, Dr. King returned, arguing that that if his message of non-violence didn’t work in Memphis, it would not work anywhere.
On April 3, at Mason Temple in Memphis, he gave his famous “Mountaintop” speech that cited the threats and foreshadowed his death: “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” The next day he was shot.
MLK: THE ASSASSINATION TAPES captures the frantic manhunt for MLK’s assassin, the riots that erupted across the country, and the desperate pleas for peace from President Lyndon Johnson and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. It includes poignant footage of Coretta Scott King and her children marching in Memphis just days after King’s death, in support of the striking workers.
MLK: THE ASSASSINATION TAPES is produced by Tom Jennings of Tom Jennings Productions. Executive producers for Smithsonian Channel are David Royle and Charles Poe.
Will you watch MLK The Assassination Tapes on Smithsonian Channel? Let me know in the comments section.