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Rodney Ho covers TV and radio, from Atlanta’s stations to the hottest “American Idol" news.

Preview of NBC's 50th anniversary special: Martin Luther King Jr., media and the civil rights movement

Posted Thursday, March 23, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

As the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination approaches, NBC News is airing a two-hour documentary about how MLK and the civil rights movement masterfully used the media - especially photos and video - to help further its cause.

Called "Hope & Fury: MLK, the Movement and the Media," the special will air on Saturday, March 24, at 8 p.m.

It features interviews with more than two dozen experts, reporters and contemporaneous players such as Rep. John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, C.T. Vivian, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw. It's narrated by "NBC Nightly News" anchor Lester Holt.

Hank Klibanoff, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of "The Race Beat" who now runs the Georgia Cold Cases Civil Rights Project at Emory, is frequently featured in the documentary since his entire book was about the subject at hand: how the press covered the civil rights movement, both the black and white press primarily during the 1950s and 1960s.

Author Taylor Branch in the special called the decision of mainstream press in the 1950s to ignore black lives as "galling... the level or disregard and oblivion that was in the media at that time."

It took weeks before national press even paid attention to the Montgomery bus boycott, for instance. And white media often didn't even bother to reference black people by name, as this would be indicate of a sign of respect.

King and his peaceful protests eventually gained the attention of white media thanks in part to the success of the Montgomery boycott. The city relented and allowed integrated buses.

The special then explores the media coverage of the Little Rock school integration battle, the lunch counter protests and the Freedom Fighters. King's media savvy was undeniable.

"We knew that if one us didn't interpret what we were doing it to the press, someone else would do it and get it all wrong," said Diane Nash, the media coordinator for the Freedom Rides who is still alive. At this point, the segregationists were getting wise because they began targeting journalists, too, physically and verbally, dubbing them "outside agitators."

At points, the special shows more recent images of cops shooting blacks and a white supremacist rally last year in Charlottesville to make it clear that the past is never quite the past.

Andrew Young gives props to King for innate ability to encapsulate his thoughts in 30-second soundbites. And King knew provoking violence from segregationists drew TV cameras. The sheriff in Albany, GA did not bite. But Birmingham's public safety chief Bull Connor did. He brought out the fire hoses and dogs on protesters, images that now encapsulate that era.

That tragedy and a succession of media-saturate events - MLK's inspiring March on Washington, followed by the deaths of three civil rights volunteers in Mississippi (two white), the bombing of a Birmingham church and the March on Selma -  paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The visual violence at Selma, Brokaw said, "could not be denied. You couldn't excuse it in some way." Networks broke into prime-time programming (including, ironically, a film called "Trial of) Nuremburg.") and thousands soon converged on Selma.

"Without television," Lewis said, "the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings."

There is also a segment on the growth of the Black Power movement in the mid-1960s which made the mainstream press uneasy but was actually geared to blacks themselves, not the white majority. And there's a portion about the Black Lives Matter movement of the 2010s and the parallels (and differences) to what happened a half century earlier, as well as the relevancy of the press in the age of social media.

As the 1960s moved on, King shifted his message. He went north and focused on income and racial inequality but faced more resistance than he had expected. In March, 1968, he tried to help sanitation workers in Memphis and that's where he died April 4.

HBO is also airing “King in the Wilderness," which examines the final chapters of King’s life, who was facing criticism from both the right and the left. It debuts Monday, April 2 at 8 p.m. Meanwhile, Viacom’s Paramount network will air “I Am MLK Jr.,” an original documentary from filmmaker Derik Murray, set to air April 4 at 9 p.m.

 TV PREVIEW

"Hope & Fury: MLK, the Movement and the Media," 8 p.m. Saturday, March 24, NBC; 9 p.m. Sunday, March 25, MSNBC

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About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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