On Wednesday, Jan. 15, the Center for Community Engagement and Social Change sponsored a showing of HBO’s “King in the Wilderness” in the Warch Campus Center Cinema. Students, staff and community members alike attended the event to kick off a week of service and dedication in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The documentary, cataloging the conflicts Dr. King struggled with in the later chapters of his life, provided context and motivation for the residence hall programming, campus wide teach-ins about racial justice, off-campus volunteering and celebration in the chapel that went on throughout the weekend.
The documentary intersperses historical footage with never-before-seen interviews with those close to Dr. King. While King was revered as a great leader and catalyst of change for obvious and groundbreaking reasons, the personal struggles he went through to get there are frequently underappreciated. He often felt conflicted between his obligations to his family and his obligation to his cause and the people who looked up to him, and, according to those close to him, he frequently felt he was not doing enough in either capacity. Along with his revolutionary strides as a leader also came the pressure of high expectations, public approval and a feeling of responsibility too large for any one person to bear alone.
The more well-known, powerful and influential Dr. King became as a force of good, the greater his exposure to backlash and criticism as well. White supremacists opposed to desegregation measures, as well as the FBI, President Lyndon B. Johnson and other parts of the U.S. government presented a growing challenge to the Reverend Doctor’s work and well-being as he became even more outspoken late in his life.
While President Johnson had been relatively cooperative in the passing of domestic reforms such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, he and Dr. King became increasingly polarized on the issue of imperialism and foreign policy. King was reluctant to disrupt their amicable business relationship by speaking out about the Vietnam War for tactical reasons, but eventually could not compromise his conscience. On Apr. 4, 1967, King spoke out against President Johnson and the war he viewed as an international extension of U.S. racism at the Riverside Church in New York. This powerful speech lost him political points with moderate whites in the Democratic Party who chose to stand by President Johnson, and even with more moderate wings of the civil rights movement. Subsequently, the backlash Dr. King was already experiencing significantly intensified as he was labelled an enemy of the state by J. Edgar Hoover in the FBI COINTELPRO operation surveilling Black liberation leaders. It was following these developments that King was assassinated.
“King in the Wilderness” offers an important humanizing perspective on one of the most influential U.S. radicals of all time, reminding us of King’s fallibility but also the strength of his commitment and revolutionary drive. Anyone who missed the opportunity to see this film in Warch can stream it on Hulu or HBO Now. Even if for those who were unable to attend over MLK weekend, the film’s message is enduringly relevant. For further exploration of similar topics, check out the documentary “13th” on Netflix or any of James Baldwin’s novels in the Seeley G. Mudd Library, and remember that Black revolutionaries can be celebrated year-round.