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King in the Wilderness [Movie Review]


King in the Wilderness isa 2018 documentary that covers the last years of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The film begins in 1965 around the time of that year’s Voting Rights Act and ends with King’s assassination in 1968. Spanning just 18 months of an incredible life, we get great insight into the expansion of King’s campaigns which placed greater focus on economic issues. There’s also an in-depth discussion of the pressures and criticisms that he faced during this less celebrated period that was no less important than his earlier work.


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Podcast Episode

Show Notes

Usually, discussions of Black history are relegated to February. It’s rarely discussed at any other time of the year unless there’s some major event or an act of injustice concerning a Black victim. Yet, even within February, when discussing Black history, there are maybe five to ten Black historical figures that are discussed. Rosa Parks; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Harriet Tubman; Frederick Douglass; maybe George Washington Carver.

All of those individuals made great contributions to Black history and the world in general. But, when discussing Black history there’s often a lack of depth and breadth. Not only is our history limited to a handful of people but even when discussing those individuals, the telling of their stories and contributions are often from a very top-level and highly simplified view. A prime example of this phenomenon is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The reality is that King only became an icon within the last few decades, maybe around the time that his birthday became a holiday in the 1980s. Up until that point, and especially during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s King was not viewed by the mainstream as the hero that he’s become in the years since. People reference King and what they perceive to be his ideology but it’s largely limited to a generic understanding of non-violence and his “I Have a Dream” speech.

The reality is that there’s a very specific telling of his story and ideology that focuses on the activities of the earlier years of the Civil Rights Movement. What’s often discussed is the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1956), March on Washington (1963), and Selma to Montgomery marches (1965). If you limited your knowledge to mainstream media, it would mislead you to believe that everything wrapped up with the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

As King in the Wilderness shows, by the late 1960s around the time King died the tides of mainstream media had turned and King returned to being openly regarded as an unpopular figure. And not just in the South. Early on, in the South, in particular, he was regarded as a rabble-rouser. Think about that. Back in the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was regarded as a troublemaking lawbreaker.

Less attention is paid to the later years when King spoke out against the war in Vietnam, visited LA after the Watts riots, and issued a call for economic reform. He also expressed an understanding of Stokely Carmichael’s ideology of Black Power, though he did not endorse the ideology. A lot of attention is paid to the March on Washington’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But far less attention is focused on the “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” or “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speeches that were respectively given a year and the night before his assassination.

King in the Wilderness features a clip from an interview where King refers back to his “I Have a Dream” speech. In that speech, he expressed a vision of hope for the future where children and people of all races would have an equal chance at life rather than being privileged or disadvantaged based on their race. He acknowledges that it was a beautiful dream for the future but his hope has been shaken over the years by seeing the direction things have taken.

He expresses shock by the amount of pushback resulting from Black people just trying to get their basic rights. The hostility and violence that he’s seen in the years since the March on Washington are beyond his comprehension. There is a real concern expressed that things have gotten worse and Black people are now in the midst of a nightmare.

In the present when politicians and the media discuss King, they generally refer to one speech and the basic ideas of integration and non-violence. But they ignore that King also spoke about issues regarding employment, economic opportunity, and imperialism. The coverage of this wider range of social issues was one of the things that I thoroughly enjoyed about King in the Wilderness.

King in the Wilderness certainly touches on the moments from his life with which I think we’re all familiar. But it differs by offering a deeper and more nuanced view of King that is quite rare. In particular, it delves a bit more deeply into his philosophy beyond the sound bites that we’re used to hearing.

As expected there is commentary from his friends and associates from that time. They give a bit of perspective on what was going on in the public but also what the mood was like behind the scenes in King’s day-to-day life. This gives you an idea of what King, the man, was experiencing away from the crowds and cameras. To be clear, King in the Wilderness is not the complete story of King’s life but rather focuses on the last few years of his life.

Something that I try to bring into focus with the content I’ve been creating is how deep-seated and ingrained this system of racial oppression has been. In the telling of America’s racist history, there is a tendency for the South to be presented as the problem. As though everything was okay once voter suppression and other aspects of the Jim Crow system had been addressed. But the reality is that things kind of took a turn or more accurately the popular version of the Civil Rights Movement fizzled out in 1965.

One contributing factor was the assassination of Malcolm X. But also the Movement’s shift in focus from obtaining basic civil rights to fully integrating Black people into American society. This would mean addressing economic inequality, housing inequality, and several other complex issues that were certainly present in the South but quietly pressing in the North and West.

You get the impression that activists just packed up and went home after the Voting Rights Act was passed. That it marked the end of the proper Civil Rights Movement and things just fell apart from there. But as King in the Wilderness points out, things just became a lot more complex.

Racism was just as present and Black people were just as oppressed in the North and West as they were in the South. But what made it feel different was that in the South the racism was very blatant. It was written into law, public, openly hostile, and violent. Whereas in the North and West, it was more subtle but just as pervasive and entrenched in every facet of society.

The early campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement are incredibly important. But I appreciated King in the Wilderness because it did a good job of placing focus on the later years of King’s life. It’s a less frequently discussed period but he was doing equally important work trying to slay a different kind of beast.

In the South, their issues were compounded by a threat of violence that was ever-present and not at all hidden. This threat of violence was also present in the North but lurked below the surface and allowed some of the issues regarding equality to seem less pressing. With the federal government intervening in the South and nullifying some of that violence while beginning to enforce some civil rights, it made it seem like the major problems had been solved. It gave rise to the false idea that we had overcome and were now living in a post-racial society. It’s pointed out that those early wins didn’t require anyone to sacrifice anything aside from local government giving up their public backing of White supremacy.

But as with the period following the Civil War, Black people emerging from this second slavery would require and should have received assistance to place themselves on a solid footing. This after years, centuries really, of being economically oppressed and exploited. Without those wrongs being corrected how much progress had really been achieved? Take into consideration that the concerns then were inadequate housing, police brutality, inadequate employment, etc. and these are still concerns now. If these were the issues that remained once the basics of voting and civil rights had been addressed, how much progress had and has been made?

You realize that a lot of the issues that King and his counterparts were fighting against are still present even today. With that in mind, it’s interesting to see King journey north and spend time in Chicago. To see his interactions with everyday people and learn about some of the campaigns they implemented was eye-opening.

I knew that he’d led marches in Chicago but didn’t fully understand that the campaigns were about various aspects of housing. The clips show King taking up residence in a raggedy low-rise apartment building. But up to a few years ago, you were still hearing a lot about the terrible condition of the public housing buildings and other housing in Chicago.

Before King in the Wilderness, I’d seen clips of King marching and being attacked in Chicago so I wasn’t caught off guard by the hostility. I’d also seen what appeared to be even more violent marches in the South. But it gave some perspective to hear some of the interviewees explain the difference in intensity between the two.

There was a threat of violence in both places but due to the difference in population, there was a substantial difference in the number of the counter-protesters. In the South, you might have Klan members, regular people, and law enforcement out at protests and they might just be a few hundred. In Chicago, because of the concentration of people, there could be thousands of counter-protestors. They had to adapt to the particulars of the new environment while still maintaining their commitment to non-violence.

Likewise, there were poor people in the South but poverty looked different in the North because of overcrowding. The North has a version of segregation that typically consists of Black people regardless of income being corralled into overcrowded slums. Even members of the middle class who had the money were prevented from moving into areas with better housing options. Chicago is incredibly cold during the winter. But yet multiple people were coming to see King about them living without heat. A description that stuck with me was babies being wrapped in newspaper to keep them warm.

Protests and the threat of Black people pushing to move into predominantly White neighborhoods brought unwanted attention to the city. I have a healthy distrust of preachers and politicians. Thus I wasn’t very surprised to learn that local politicians who benefited from the mayor’s patronage system were calling for King and company to leave them alone to handle their city’s affairs. This after having years to do something and I would think you’d welcome any genuine help.

Eventually, King had a sit down with the mayor, and agreements were made but it seems that very little change came about in the long term. Today when you hear news about Chicago, it seems to be the same issues that were plaguing the Black community then are plaguing the community now. Unemployment and inadequate housing, not just concerning availability but quality. There’s also the economic and other realities that come along with Black people being penned into these substandard neighborhoods.

There is a slow-burning fuse as the Civil Rights Movement begins to shift focus to addressing economic inequality. Conditions in the North are different so protests take a different form: riots. Until the 1960s, riots had taken place across America but they had been led by White people. Black people in the North and West were frustrated by lack of opportunity and being trapped in ghettos with all of the accompanying issues.

A recorded conversation between President Johnson and King gives a real sense of the feeling at the time. After visiting LA following the riots, King pointed out that the Black population feeling hopeless was a powder keg brewing. I did find it telling that instead of focusing on what sparked the riot in LA, Johnson instead complained that he’d implemented various laws to benefit Black people. He seemed to regard the rioters as ungrateful and while I don’t think rioting is productive, I agree with King that in this context it was being used to express frustration at being ignored.

The voting and civil rights bills that had been passed did little to improve conditions for Black people in the North and West. And Black people were still fighting to have those new rights recognized in the South. Stokely Carmichael rose within SNCC which paved the way for the expulsion of its White members as a means of Black empowerment and self-determination.

I found myself agreeing with some aspects of Carmichael’s reasoning. Given that Black people were being harmed and had been oppressed for so long, they should have been the voice and directors of the Movement. There is nothing wrong with White people participating in a movement aimed at racial equality. But they would be more effective working within the White community to effect change with their families and friends.

There’s a tendency where both people and the media play a part in exalting a person to the point of them no longer being human. This happens to even regular people where their persona is shined up and finagled beyond what they were and how they were viewed while alive. It’s even worse when a person has some notoriety and becomes a public icon.

The behind-the-scenes view of King in the context of how he was viewed then versus now was a bit unsettling. King was doing a lot but there was still so much that needed to be done and he felt as though he was falling short. It’s like, sir you are a human being please sit down somewhere and relax for a bit. The boots on the ground activists go home at the end of the day, you should too. He didn’t know it at the time but King would end up sacrificing his life for the Movement. Yet even before his death, he’d done enough. More than enough.

What bothered me was having the privilege of looking back from what’s now the future and knowing that he made the ultimate sacrifice. Yet while going through all of these difficulties and braving hardships, in the back of his mind he was also wrestling with people fussing and picking at him. Being made to feel as though you’re not doing enough or you’re not doing things the way that they’d like you to do things. And then internalizing those feelings on top of the stress from everything else. Sometimes we don’t give people their flowers while they’re alive. We take them for granted and only realize just how much they’ve given of themselves after they’ve passed away. I’m guilty of this as well.

If you think about it, eradicating segregation should have resulted in some cost savings. Instead of operating two of everything, theoretically, you can now operate just one and make more efficient use of any surplus funds. Voting rights and the rest cost nothing but giving up control. But it’s a different conversation when you get past the basics and we have to start talking about the restructuring of American society to make things fairer. This is where you now find almost universal pushback from across regions and economic groups because those that have benefited from this system of inequality are not willing to give up their privileges.

Quite often, when you look back at Black history, there seems to be a clear and clean divide between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Or at least the divide seems to exist within the mainstream story of these two individuals and their ideologies. On the one side, you have King who was speaking about non-violence, integration, and civil rights. But it’s presented in the media as being apologetic, meekly asking permission rather than demanding your God-given rights as a human being. A willingness to subject yourself to punishment for acceptance.

Overall it’s a gross misrepresentation of the tactics, goals, and what was at stake during the Civil Rights Movement. And before taking a deeper look into the Movement, this mainstream media representation made me very uncomfortable. Until a few years ago when I began delving deeply into Black history, I had what turned out to be a basic and flawed understanding of this history. I didn’t know all that I should have. And I still don’t know all that I should. But I’ve been making the effort to seek out information to learn and educate myself.

On the other side, you had Malcolm X who was very early in speaking about Black people rejecting the racist concepts of white supremacy and Black inferiority. Accepting, respecting, and taking pride in ourselves as Black people. Rejecting the stereotypes and negative imagery that had been put out there about Black people and instead see ourselves as human beings with a right to live free just like everyone else. With that right and self-pride, was the forceful call to not accept mistreatment for any reason.

With all of that in mind, it makes King in the Wilderness a good jumping-off point for getting a different perspective on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If I’m being honest, I feel like I owe the man an apology. The documentary built on what I’d been learning about these two facets of the Movement. The details might have varied with regards to tactics but they weren’t that far apart with regards to goals. Both promoted a code of self-conduct for Black people with regards to themselves and other Black people. But they also stressed the importance of Black self-determination and economic independence.

King’s belief in the need for economic reform to right injustices and achieve equality is often overlooked when his story is being told. During the early phase of the Movement, White people could sit in their homes and see the brutality of what was taking place in the South. People could call out what they were seeing as wrong without having to put in any effort. Public opinion and international attention were enough to get the ball moving on securing basic civil rights for Black people.

The next phase of trying to achieve equality would have required the government to give a bit to make Black people whole. This part of King’s message is less widely promoted in the mainstream. There’s a lot more attention paid to the earlier idealistic and theoretical speeches where the intent was to change minds and public opinion. But less attention is paid to the later speeches and activities that were calls for action to radically change the structure of American society. And despite a centuries-long history of inequality, giving anything to Black people without also giving to White people was regarded as an injustice.

When people discuss integration, it’s often from a very superficial standpoint. Hence the photos of segregated water fountains, lunch counters, and schools. But my understanding is that King reached a point of calling for the integration of Black people into society from a civic and economic standpoint. Meaning that Black people should receive full participation in American society as full citizens. And not even joining American society as it existed because its structure was unfair to the poor regardless of race. But rather rebuilding the system so it was truly fair regardless of race or income level. That part of the Movement was a step too far for some people.

A topic that is touched upon within King in the Wilderness that has always made me raise an eyebrow as a Black woman is a specific faction of the Movement’s seeming preoccupation with White women. Harry Belafonte, and according to him King as well, and quite a number of the other leaders of the time seemed as though in part some of what they were fighting for was the right to date White women as White men could without fear of reprisal. The argument is made that a person should have the right to date and love whoever they want as long as the other person is of age and consents. And it is a valid point.

But it also seems to play into a racist ideology dating back to the years after the Civil War. White men had been sexually exploiting Black women during the slave trade, American slavery, and well into the Jim Crow years. Ignoring their sexual depravity, it was during the post-war years that White men began using the idea of Black men lusting after White women as an explanation for the sudden rise in lynchings. Ironically, you never hear these accusations of Black men previously running wild and raping White women. Yet, Black men and White women had been in relative proximity during slavery and were largely unsupervised during the Civil War.

Through White supremacy, White women were placed upon a pedestal in the American South, really throughout the country. American society is not only racist but also built on a foundation of sexism and patriarchy. And if as a Black man of that time, I view freedom within this society through its prism of white supremacy, it would affect what I value and thus want. If you meet someone regardless of their race and you guys hit it off, that’s a blessing. But there is something else going on if it’s less about you clicking with a particular White woman and more about you dreaming of the day when you can finally have a White woman. Which one? It doesn’t matter. Any will do.

Look across the Movement. Even when fighting for justice and equality within broader society, there’s a hierarchy within Black society. Those who appear to be White adjacent with lighter skin, curly or straight hair textures, and certain features are elevated above those with stereotypically Black features.

Due to white supremacy, there is an automatic association that anything White is good or the best and thus worthy of striving for. Conversely, you avoid or settle for the options that are associated with Black. That is what you accept when you can’t have anything else. But given the opportunity when you achieve some degree of success in life it should grant you access to, if not Whiteness itself then White adjacency. If society tells you that White women are the best women to have, you might feel deprived to be told that you can’t have one.

It’s always been whispered about but King’s friends admit here that he had affairs. As long as you’re not using the organization’s money to finance your affairs and they are consensual with people who are of age, I don’t really care. But I will say this is part of why I don’t place any other human being on a pedestal. I don’t spend all of my time with anyone but me so I don’t know the full details of anybody else’s private life. There’s often a difference between who people say they are and who they really are.

That’s not to say that any and everything an activist does in their home is nobody else’s concern. If you’re Marion Berry smoking crack in a hotel room or any other decision-maker indulging in any kind of substance that might make you unstable, that is a problem. If you’re at home beating your wife and kids, that’s a problem. But if everyone else knew he was cheating, I would assume that Mrs. King did as well and however she might have felt about it chose to stay. Being from the outside looking in, who knows what kind of an understanding they might have had. I say this with the caveat that I generally don’t care about what’s going on in other people’s relationships.

King speaking out against the war in Vietnam was interesting from the perspective of the backlash that he received. I’ve never really understood the idea some people have that you should focus on only one issue and have no views or opinions on other areas. Why would it be surprising that a minister who preaches about non-violence would speak out against a war?

I have also never really understood the discomfort and hostility towards communists as it’s just another ideology. But maybe that’s because I didn’t come of age at that time and wasn’t exposed to propaganda. It’s like anything else where people have different views and perspectives. Who is to say that my way or your way is the only way? Why is it such an issue for people to believe something else?

King was in America, speaking out against government brutality aimed at Black people which was physical, economic, and social. Why should it then be a surprise that he began speaking out against a war where America’s imperialist military was brutalizing people overseas?

There were other factions active in the anti-war movement but that’s like anything else that might have been going on. King being part of the anti-war movement didn’t mean that he cosigned or agreed with what everyone else believed. He was not anyone’s mouthpiece. King represented his views and opinions and was speaking out against something with which he disagreed.

It seems to be the case with most wars, during my lifetime the war in Iraq, where there is a staunch pro-war faction that is always ready to go. While the war is just being discussed and still brewing for everyone else, they are calling for war from the outset. The media and everyone else get behind the war and society is ultra-patriotic and supports the cause. They view anyone who does not support the country rushing into the slaughter of other people, basically not being a warmonger, as anti-American. But that’s at the outset.

Give it enough time for reports to start coming back about soldiers dying. Suddenly people aren’t as gung-ho and everyone is pointing the finger about who is to blame for rushing into the war. The news cycle moves on to something else and there’s less of a public rallying cry to support the troops. Within the last few years, aside from when they were drawing down troops, how often would you even hear about what was going on in Afghanistan or Iraq in comparison to when these wars first began?

Would-be war profiteers and some politicians focus on the potential to fill their pockets and political perks. Typically, their kids will not be the ones going off to fight in a war so they are more than happy to promote the idea of rushing in. There is an assumption that whoever America is fighting will be no match for its military might. But as we’ve seen in several wars, a determination to fight can give even advanced weapons quite a bit of hell.

It’s pro-American to support wars but there’s failure to realize that people in other parts of the world believe in their right to self-determination and take pride in their homelands. Regardless of the odds, some will be willing to fight. But in the build-up to wars when the propaganda is raging, there is an arrogant assumption that the “enemy” is just going to lay down and die. When you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it. This happened in Iraq and before that Vietnam. War is hell so we should avoid the drama whenever possible.

It was different in the most recent wars because there was no draft. But with Vietnam, people were being forced to join a war effort for which they cared nothing about. Who would want to put their life on the line for something in which they don’t believe? People were castigated for not supporting the war in Iraq much as they were with the Vietnam War. But when the tables turn and there’s the realization that you’re getting more of a fight than you bargained for then the finger-pointing begins and everyone is playing hot potato with responsibility for the conflict.

I liked the way everything came together when King in the Wilderness got to the point of discussing the Poor People’s Campaign. Marian Wright Edelman was one of the first Black History Shorts that I did. It had been so long that I couldn’t remember if I was aware of or mentioned the role she played in bringing King’s attention to the plight of the poor. The anti-war effort and Civil Rights Movement were important and very necessary. But King’s later campaigns appealed to me because they were focused on holistic change, the Poor People’s Campaign in particular.

The Poor People’s Campaign was a concentrated push for economic reform and change. It was enlightening to see how the campaign came together including the work that he was doing in Chicago trying to improve housing for Black people. A lot of the focus was on the needs of the poor and the need for addressing economic inequality across America. Not just within Black America but recognizing that this was an issue across racial and ethnic groups.

Recently, I’ve been reading more books that focus on the economics of Black history. Not just slavery but the programs and policies of the first half of the 1900s and their compounding effects. To hear King speak about this kind of PR machination of presenting assistance to the middle and upper class as subsidies while referring to assistance for the poor as welfare and handouts was a very accurate observation.

A stark line is drawn between the two when they’re both the same thing. He was pointing this out way back in the 60s and now I’m reading about the effects of this over the decades. Yet, even all of these decades later people still seem to not grasp this point given the arguments against economic reform and social programs.

The Poor People’s Campaign was a concentrated push for economic reform and change. It was enlightening to see how the campaign came together including the work that he was doing in Chicago trying to improve housing for Black people. A lot of the focus was on the needs of the poor and the need for addressing economic inequality across America. Not just within Black America but recognizing that this was an issue across racial and ethnic groups.

Recently, I’ve been reading more books that focus on the economics of Black history. Not just slavery but the programs and policies of the first half of the 1900s and their compounding effects. To hear King speak about this kind of PR machination of presenting assistance to the middle and upper class as subsidies while referring to assistance for the poor as welfare and handouts was a very accurate observation.

A stark line is drawn between the two when they’re both the same thing. He was pointing this out way back in the 60s and now I’m reading about the effects of this over the decades. Yet, even all of these decades later people still seem to not grasp this point given the arguments against economic reform and social programs.

We all know what happened on April 4, 1968, so I’m not going to dive into that. But quite often when someone dies, even just in everyday life, we look back and think about our last moments with them. For someone that you’ve grown up with a sibling, family member, or childhood friend, you reminisce about moments that you spent with them in the past. Memories of things from years ago that you might have forgotten rush back into your mind.

In the decades since his assassination, King has become an icon but King in the Wilderness is rather humanizing. People who worked with King were interviewed and given the nature of the work grew to know him quite intimately. Some knew him from childhood, as a young adult, or even became acquainted in later years through the Movement. Regardless of the length of time, they went through trying periods together which forged very strong bonds. You get an intimate human perspective on King’s last days and unfortunately, the period when so many people were turning their backs on him.

I don’t have any criticisms of King in the Wilderness. The only way it could have been improved would be if history worked out differently. Failing that maybe if Mrs. King had been available to provide her perspective. She’s present in a few clips and receives props for not just being “Mrs. King” but for her involvement in the Movement.

At this point, there have been several movies about King and I’m sure there’ll be many more and the same goes for documentaries. But King in the Wilderness spoke to me because it felt more intimate and you get a feel for the man as a human being rather than as an icon. The clips of him with his family and their plans for the future make clear his sacrifice.

To watch a man walking this difficult path while knowing that there are people out there who would not hesitate to kill him. I could only imagine the burden that must come with living under that kind of pressure. To give so much of your life and not have it be appreciated both within and outside the Movement. We give people their flowers too late and judge them too harshly.

I think I got a pretty good education in my youth but am still dismayed at just how much I didn’t learn. Maybe it’s a matter of my getting older and not necessarily more mature but more patient. Maybe being a little bit less arrogant and ignorant. Being open to having my beliefs questioned and considering new perspectives. And this is even concerning things that I thought I knew and understood.

This is an incredible documentary for people that are already familiar with Dr. King but also people who believe they disagree with his take on the battle for civil rights. At times it can feel like you’re pushed to choose between King and Malcolm X. But I think people that proclaim to be more Malcolm than Martin or vice versa should check out King in the Wilderness. Like the man, it’s incredible and worth diving into deeply.

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