Monday, January 16, 2012

Schooling On MLK and the Civil Rights Movement

Today is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and as we honor this day I thought I’d make up a short list of works, both creative and scholarly, that are about Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. One thing is for certain, there are very few people who know about Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, outside of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. These works, I think, offer a broader perspective of who Dr. King was and what the civil rights movement actually did to fight for social justice. This is not an extensive list, by no means, but it does offer an entryway into a movement whose effects of social activism still touch us today.

Eyes on The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1964; Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Crossroads 1965-1985

In 1987 and 1990, PBS aired this award-winning 14-hour documentary about the Civil Rights movement, beginning with the Montgomery Bus boycott to the legislative and electoral victories and failures of the 1980s. Produced by Henry Hampton, Eyes on the Prize uses news footage of all the important players and events in the movement from the bus boycott to the election of the first black mayor in Chicago, Harold Washington. Eyes on the Prize offers a more complex view of the Civil Rights movement and its longterm effects in American society.

America in the King Years Trilogy by Taylor Branch

Noted historian, Taylor Branch wrote a trilogy of books exhaustively documenting the Civil Rights movement much in the same way as Eyes on the Prize. Beginning with Parting the Water: America in the King Years 1954-1963, which won the Pulitzer, then leading into Pillar of Fire 1963-1965, and At Canaan’s Edge 1965-1968, the trilogy delves not only into the Civil Rights movement, but documents the Nation of Islam and the rise and assassination of Malcolm X, the Black Panther movement, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and their reactions to the Civil Rights movement, as well as the various men and woman, including Ella Baker, Montgomery N.A.A.C.P. chapter president E.D. Nixon, Bob Moses, John Lewis, Diane Nash, Vernon Dahmer, Fannie Lou Hamer and others, who were as much if not more important figures in the Civil Rights movement as Dr. King.


In 2001, HBO aired this docu-drama about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Starring Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King and directed by Clark Johnson (S.W.A.T., The Wire), Boycott captures a moment in civil rights history that catapulted Dr. King into national and international prominence. Wonderfully acted and directed, the film brings a modern edge to these historical events and make them more accessible to today’s young audiences.

Dreamer by Charles Johnson

Johnson’s 1999 novel about Dr. King takes a moment in the civil rights leader’s life---when he took his campaign north to Chicago---and extrapolates larger questions about race and inequality. Told from three perspectives---Dr. King, his aide Matthew Bishop, and a King lookalike Chaym Smith---Dreamer has an almost hallucinogenic quality to it as it goes back and forth between all three perspectives. While certainly not a novel for anyone who knows little to nothing about the history, it does offer different and more profound inquiries about both Dr. King and the movement toward social justice in general.

Freedom Riders

Earlier last year, PBS aired another documentary on the Civil Rights movement, this time focusing solely on the Freedom Rides campaign in 1961 to enforce desegregation laws in interstate traveling. The two hour documentary covered the thousands of people who were a part of the Freedom Rides as they boarded Trailways and Greyhound buses and traveled through the south, facing down some of the most virulent hatred and violence the movement faced up to date. The documentary does an excellent job of revealing the bravery of the young men and women who undertook the campaign and how this campaign became a significant turning point in the movement.

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