A Documentary a Day I: 1968

(Ed: Scoring explained here)

Citizen King (PBS, 2005) ****
The United States of America has never had a stronger, clearer moral voice than Martin Luther King Jr. and probably never will. Citizen King focuses on MLK during the critical years of 1963-1968, beginning with King’s arrest in Birmingham, continuing through successes in Birmingham and Selma, failures in Albany, Georgia and Chicago, and shifting focuses on poverty and the Vietnam War, before ending with his assassination in Memphis.

MLK’s flaws are not given much attention in Citizen King. His plagiarism is not mentioned due to the time period covered and his infidelity is only mentioned in passing. However, it only seems right when these failures pale in comparison as they do to MLK’s accomplishments.

1968 with Tom Brokaw (History Channel, 2008) *
I’m not sure whether this documentary totally missed the mark or if it just put the mark in the wrong place. 1968 was one of the, if not the, worst calendar years in American History. The Tet Offensive showed Americans that the War in Vietnam was not going to end anytime soon, leading to the development of a credibility gap between the government and the people that has yet to heal. Martin Luther King’s assassination took from us our moral compass, while Robert Kennedy’s assassination two months later stole King’s successor. Race riots showed us how far we had to go for equality and the Chicago DNC Riots showed us the extent to which Vietnam was tearing our nation apart.

What does 1968 give us? A segment on protest music, a segment on the edgy comedy of the Smothers Brothers, a segment on Hippies, and precisely zero urgency for everything mentioned above. At least we get Tom Brokaw.

RFK (PBS, 2004) ****
Robert Kennedy might be the most tragic figure in American History. He devoted his life to his brother until JFK’s assassination in 1963. When JFK fell, so did RFK’s identity. So, he forged his own, becoming the champion of those whom American society had failed. His story ends with a “What if?” however, as he was struck down by an assassin in 1968. All of this and more is expertly covered in this episode of The American Experience.

The thing I admire most about RFK was his willingness to change his mind when new information became available. Early in his career, he was a Cold War moralist who eventually came to recognize that the war in Vietnam was not morally justifiable. He was a hawk who came to realize that we should not launch a pre-emptive strike on Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was an affluent White male who came to recognize the ugliness of both the segregationists’ hatred and the lack of urgency of the nation’s moderates who believed that civil rights were great and all, eventually. One is left to wonder how different our nation would be today had RFK become president in 1968.

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