‘Citizen King’

After that football game, of which for reasons disclosed elsewhere I saw only the last quarter, Kate came home and our ensuing channel surfing fetched up on “Citizen King,” an episode of “The American Experience” on Martin Luther King, Jr. Probably because you know the way the story is going to come out, or at least his part of it, it has the feeling of a tragedy alongside which the made-up kind pale (sorry, Will). The tragedy resounds the more deeply because of the aftermath of King’s death. One can hardly argue that we’ve reached that moment he talked about the night before he died that his people — the black, the poor, and the oppressed, would reach the promised land. It wasn’t a promised land just for those whose cause he made his own; it was a destination for the United States, too. I wonder, with the pictures of the mid-60s, and 1968 especially, fresh again, whether the nation suffered a blow, a spiritual injury, that was too big to be overcome in our lifetimes. That may be the still-impressionable spectator of the events talking; the sizable portion of the population born since then might ask what’s the big deal. But it’s true, too, that as a nation we’re swept along by the silent currents of events that predate us, predate our families’ arrival in the United States.

And speaking of family connections, there was a moment in the film when my Uncle Bill appeared on the screen. He spent a lot of time in his career as a Catholic priest in Chicago working on movement issues, and joined some of King’s campaigns in the South (the Selma-Montgomery march in 1965, for instance; amazingly, the route of the march is now a National Park Service National Historic Trail). Anyway, Bill: The documentary included an extensive section on King’s campaign in Chicago, including his marches in Cicero and the segregated neighborhoods of Gage Park and Marquette Park. Suddenly, there was film of marchers filing down the sidewalk, and for two seconds, maybe, there’s Bill. I went back and looked again (on Tivo — well, there’s one thing about the world you can say is better than the ’60s). No doubt — it was him, caught just for an instant doing what he did.

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