ABC's Jennings revisits historical moment in '63


Peter Jennings Reporting - I Have a Dream is an example of a television news program doing exactly what critics have long exhorted the medium to do: Pay attention to history. Not only does this prime-time report on Dr. Martin Luther King's legendary speech highlight an event that happened 40 years ago today, it also presents it in context, exploring the multilayered forces that produced it.

The result is a program that will enlighten many viewers with information and analysis, while offering a worthy public meditation on a central event in the nation's past.

Any who would blame television for its role in producing a nation in which each generation seems to know less of our history than the last is going to have a hard time explaining away this one.

The most refreshing aspect of the report is its simple, straightforward eloquence. There's no hype in the setup, no hot-dog grandstanding by the celebrity newscaster (whose name, nonetheless, is in the title). Instead, the focus is on King's speech from the very beginning.

Standing in front of Washington's Lincoln Memorial, Jennings wastes no time telling viewers exactly where the report is headed.

"It is here at the Lincoln Memorial that Martin Luther King gave one of the most important speeches in American history," Jennings begins.

"His struggle to articulate what freedom meant to black Americans and his linking that to the American Dream assure his place in the national consciousness. But a speech is not complete without context."

The report then provides that context, taking viewers directly to 1963 and the months leading up to the speech - particularly the troubled days and nights in Birmingham, Ala., when it looked like the civil rights movement was losing its momentum. What today seems as if it had been so inevitable was anything but, according to historians, journalists and participants in the movement. Those interviewed on-screen include: Taylor Branch, author of Parting the Waters; correspondent Roger Mudd, who covered the movement for CBS, and such colleagues of King's as James Bevel and Andrew Young.

Segments within the hourlong report are divided by passages from the speech, which are then explicated the way students in English literature might go through T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland line by line, trying to determine the sources from which the words and ideas came.

One segment opens with King in voiceover describing his dream of a day in Alabama when "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as brothers and sisters."

The report explains the critical role children played in King's thinking in 1963, and examines the moment when King abandoned his policy of not including children in the marches for fear of how their participation might be interpreted and flooded the streets with students. Six hundred were arrested the first day by the forces of Eugene Bull Connor, the Birmingham police chief, but another 1,000 students showed up the next day to march.

It was Connor's inability to jail so many young people that led to his fateful decision to call out Birmingham's police canine units and fire department hose trucks to try and force student protesters off the street. The pictures that followed played across the country that night and in national memory since. For all the hundreds of times that I've seen those images, I have to admit I did not know all the particulars of the strategies and counter-strategies that produced them.

While one can fault the report for being excessively self-congratulatory about the role of TV news in the civil rights movement (and conveniently overlooking the many times network news cameras looked the other way for far too many years), that is no reason not to watch tonight. Perhaps the best testimony to the power of this report is that by the end of the hour, King's speech seems to ring with even more majesty and power than ever.

This is television that enriches both the viewer and the story that it tells.

MLK report

What: Peter Jennings Reporting - I Have a Dream

When: Tonight at 10

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: Proof that network news can report on history in a way that enriches national memory.

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