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Pt 2: 50 Years After March on Washington, Little-Seen 1970 Doc Follows MLK in Montgomery, Birmingham

Web ExclusiveAugust 28, 2013
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As part of today’s national commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we continue our discussion with Associate Producer Richard Kaplan of the rarely seen Oscar-nominated documentary about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis. Largely made from original newsreel footage, the film was played at a “one time only” event on one night in 1970 at 650 theaters, but has since gone largely unseen. We air an excerpt of the film capturing King organizing and speaking in Montgomery and Birmingham. Click here to watch Part 1 of this interview and see footage of King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we continue our conversation with Richard Kaplan, associate producer of the documentary King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis. It is a remarkable documentary that aired for one night on March 24th, 1970, in over 650 theaters around the country. It was two years after Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4th, 1968. The film consists of the archival footage of Dr. King’s public life from 1955, when he became a national figure leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott that was started by Rosa Parks when she sat down on the bus and refused to get up for a white passenger, then moving on to Birmingham and the children’s crusade, the challenging of racism in Birmingham, going on to Chicago and taking on racism in housing. Of course, before that was the 1963 March on Washington and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. And then the film goes on to Sweden and Dr. King getting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Ultimately, as he led the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, he’s gunned down in Memphis organizing sanitation workers. So you’ve got all of this archival footage in this remarkable film that was produced by Ely Landau, and it has these small cameos of famous artists and actors, like Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Ben Gazzara, Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones, Clarence Williams, Anthony Quinn, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. And they were filmed by the famous director Sidney Lumet, also Joseph Mankiewicz.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go to singer and actor Harry Belafonte’s monologue from the beginning of King: A Filmed Record. He’s one of the many famous people featured in the film reading poems and passages. Belafonte is reading “An’ the Good Lord Makes Himself a Man,” by Ralph Ellison. [Editor’s note: This transcript has edited for accuracy.]

HARRY BELAFONTE: Sometimes the good Lord … I say sometimes the good Lord accepts his own perfection and closes His eyes and goes ahead and takes His own good time, and He makes Himself a man. Yes, and sometimes that man gets hold of the idea of what it is possible for him to do, and that man lets that idea guide him as he grows and struggles and stumbles and sorrows until finally he comes into his own God-given shape and achieves his own individual and lonely place in this world.

It doesn’t happen very often, oh no, but when it does, then even the stones will cry out in witness to his vision and the hills and towers will echo his words and deeds and his examples will live in the hearts of men forever.

The Master doesn’t make many like that, because that kind of man is dangerous to the sloppy ways of the world. That kind of man loves truth even more than he loves his life, or his wife or his children, because he’s been designated and set aside to do the hard tasks that have to be done. That kind of man will do what he sees as justice, even if the Earth yawns and swallows him down. And even then, his deeds will persist in the land forever.

So you look at him, you look at him a while, and be thankful that the Lord let such a man touch our lives, even if it were for only a little while.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Harry Belafonte in an excerpt in King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis. It was filmed—this cameo was filmed by Sidney Lumet. Sidney Lumet and Joe Mankiewicz filmed these little cameos of famous actors throughout the black-and-white, really gritty, sometimes horrifying, incredibly inspiring footage of Dr. King’s public life. Is that right, Richard Kaplan?

RICHARD KAPLAN: That’s correct. It was done, as I say—as I mentioned earlier, it was an effort to ensure an audience, because of these well-known names, but also it turned out to be that they gave a not only connective to these various raw documentary stuff, it gave a sense of context, and it gave a feeling of—that transcended, if I can use that word, some of the documentary footage, because it put it in a certain context, both lyrical and poetic and so forth. Yeah.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And was it difficult to get the celebrities involved, like Harry Belafonte?

RICHARD KAPLAN: Oh, no, not at all. I think every—as we know, in the March on Washington, as you’ve seen, they were there, and they were involved. It was a large—at that time, it was a different era.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a very different era. It’s 1955. It’s Montgomery, Alabama. And this is where the film begins, because you’re tracing the public trajectory of King’s life. It is hard to believe it was just 13 years in the public eye.

RICHARD KAPLAN: It’s incredible. You’re right, Amy. That’s exactly true, that he—the arc of these 13 years is—encompasses so much.


RICHARD KAPLAN: And to see it all together in one hunk is what makes it so powerful, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: We just did ourshow yesterday about the march, about the women who were included and excluded. Rosa Parks was at the 1963 march 50 years ago today on the stage, but she was not asked to speak. Lena Horne was taken around. European networks wanted to interview her. So, it was Rosa Parks who really helped to launch Dr. King into the public eye, because she sat down on the bus December 1st, 1955.

RICHARD KAPLAN: That is correct.

AMY GOODMAN: December 5th, the Montgomery Improvement Association has their meeting to choose a leader to lead the bus boycott, and they choose Dr. King. Let’s go to a clip in the film of Dr. King. This is December 1955 as he is leading the community in deciding to boycott the buses.

REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: It has been moved and seconded that the resolution as read will be received and adopted. Are you ready for the question? All in favor, let it be known by standing on your feet.

That was the day that we started a bus protest which literally electrified the nation, and that was the day when we decided that we were not going to take segregated buses any longer. And, you know, when we planned the bus boycott, we said if we could just get about 50 or 60 percent of the Negroes of Montgomery not to ride buses, this would be an effective boycott. I think that whole day we found eight Negroes on the buses. And from that day on, that boycott was more than 99.9 percent effective.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. King, 1955, ’56. The end of the boycott came just about a year later. Dr. King announces it. We are speaking to Richard Kaplan, associate producer of King: A Filmed Record. It is amazing that this is just out now as a double DVD, a newly HD remastered from the 35-millimeter footage, Richard.

RICHARD KAPLAN: Yeah. Well, you know, for many years it was never seen, for a variety of reasons. And about two, almost two-and-a-half years ago, I decided—I had always felt that this was a tremendous shame that this film was never seen, and it was my dream to see that it got out to a large audience. And this is, in this sense, the realization of my dream. And I sort of decided to bite the bullet. We made an extensive search to try to find out who held the copyright. No one really knew, because when this was made, we had had no idea that it would be the iconic film that it’s turned out to be. And we had worked on this with a people—group of people who were really volunteering in many cases. Their services were being paid little or nothing. And no proper records were ever really kept. So we never could find out who had the actual copyright. There’s a copyright mark on the film—the Martin Luther King Film Project—but no one knew who were they, who were the individuals we could—and we—

AMY GOODMAN: And Ely Landau produced the film.

RICHARD KAPLAN: Well, Ely, we saw, for—

AMY GOODMAN: Sidney Lumet and Joe Mankiewicz were—filmed the cameos.

RICHARD KAPLAN: Yeah, well, Joe Mankiewicz and Sidney Lumet were not involved in anything other than the filming of the cameos. And there’s always been a lot of misrepresentation that the film was directed by Joe Mankiewicz and Sidney. That’s not a—there’s no directing credit on the film whatsoever. They did film the cameos of the artists that we see. But the film itself, that Ely and I did, was basically the archival footage and other materials that we were lucky enough to find after we made an exhaustive search—for example, the bus boycott. At that time, there was no television. Very—King was not a known personality. But we were very fortunate. We had put out some requests and ads in various places to see if there was any footage. People may have made home movies. And by good luck, we found someone who had made a film on the boycott for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, you know, pacifist group, who was involved with King. And we contacted the director of that film, the producer. It turned to be someone I knew somewhat vaguely, and we were able to get the rights to that footage. And much of what you see of the actual bus protest was from that film, because that was the only source of material. No one—no one paid attention to it.

AMY GOODMAN: From Birmingham—from Montgomery, we go to Birmingham and the footage of the kids.

RICHARD KAPLAN: See, that’s where the big—suddenly, with the advent of television, the explosion of television in the United States occurred really in the early '60s. And Birmingham was really responsible for the civil rights bill, for the march on—because when the American public at large saw what was going on, saw these kids being beaten, being hosed down, the public opinion was also, by the way, responsible for Kennedy changing his mind. Kennedy originally was opposed to the idea of the March on Washington. He didn't think it was politically a good idea. He was afraid there would be a violent situation. Nevertheless, the organizers of the march insisted, and Kennedy, after seeing the footage of these kids in Birmingham, changed his mind and said, “OK, let’s go ahead with it.” And we all know the results.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go back to King: A Filmed Record. This is Dr. King in 1963 reading his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote after he and hundreds of others were arrested during a boycott of businesses in Birmingham, Alabama, that discriminated against African-American customers and refused to employ them. His letter was a response to a statement by eight white Alabama clergy titled “A Call for Unity,” in which they called for the battle against racial segregation to be fought solely in the courts, not in the streets. This is Dr. King.

REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: [reading “Letter from Birmingham Jail”] “MY DEAR FELLOW CLERGYMEN: While confined here in the Birmingham City Jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities 'unwise and untimely.' … Since I feel that you are men of genuine goodwill and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms. …

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. …

“Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. … There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. …

“You may well ask: 'Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?’ … Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. …

“You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. … Was not Jesus an extremist for love: 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.' … Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? …

“When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park … and see her … developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: 'Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?'; … when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading 'white' and 'colored'; when your first name becomes 'nigger,' your middle name becomes 'boy' (however old you are) and your last name becomes 'John,' and your wife and mother are never given the respected title 'Mrs.'; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; … when you [are] forever fighting a [degrading and] degenerating sense of ’nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. …

“You assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. … Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? …

“I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. … We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of [the almighty] God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. King reading his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” This is absolutely astounding footage. It’s footage from the documentary, King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guest has been Richard Kaplan, associate producer of the documentary.

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StoryAug 28, 201350 Years After March on Washington, 1970 Documentary “King: A Filmed Record” Captures MLK’s Journey
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