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Enlightening doc revisits inspiring event

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There probably isn't a person alive in North America who isn't familiar with these words, spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1963:

"I have a dream."


The March

Narrated by Denzel Washington

Tuesday at 8 p.m.


But what the dream encapsulated in King's most famous speech entailed, and how he came to deliver it half a century ago, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to an audience of nearly 300,000 people on the National Mall, are less widely known, despite the fact the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom represents a crucial turning point in the U.S. civil rights movement.

On the eve of the event's 50th anniversary, PBS offers a fascinating bit of background detail in the form of The March, an hour-long documentary that examines the events that inspired the march, the work that went into organizing it, and the delicate political negotiations that resulted in a gathering that turned out to be much more peaceful than some of Washington's most powerful residents believed it could be.

The film, directed by John Akomfrah, is a co-produced (along with Smoking Dog Films and Cactus Three) by Sundance Productions, the film and TV production company founded last year by Robert Redford and former Winnipegger Laura Michalchyshyn.

Narrated by Denzel Washington, the documentary features interviews with dozens of activists and celebrities who were in the U.S. capital half a century ago to hear King's famous address, including Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Diahann Carroll and Sidney Poitier.

"The march had a clearly an aspirational component to it," said Clarence T. Jones, who acted as lawyer and speechwriter to King in the lead-up to the event in Washington. "The march had a celebratory component to it -- by celebratory, I meant it was a celebration that we've come this far. The march was a collective summoning of the conscience, the moral conscience of America. That's what the march and assembly was. It was the clarion call to the conscience of America that said, in so many words, that we can be a country better than what we have been; that police dogs, fire hoses, the continuance of racial segregation, that's really not who we are. We can be much better than this. So, in that sense, you know, I'd say it was aspirational."

In an interview earlier this month during PBS's portion of the U.S. networks' summer press tour in Los Angeles, Jones and other participants in the march recalled the event as an attempt by King and other civil-rights activists as a bold move aimed at forcing the southern states -- Alabama in particular -- to recognize the undeniable shift in American attitudes toward segregation, and to push the Kennedy administration to fulfil the promises it had made but then largely ignored regarding civil-rights legislation.

"I think what the march did was it sent a signal to the nation, particularly to the center of power, that the civil-rights movement, as fractured as it had been through the South, was no longer a regional movement, but was a national movement," said Roger Mudd, who covered the march for CBS in 1963.

"And then, I think, with the assassination of President Kennedy, President Johnson was able to use that assassination as a major lever to get the Civil Rights Bill through. But I don't think any of that would have happened without the march being as successful as it was."

Among the most interesting details in this very enlightening film is the fact that a crucial part of King's legendary speech was actually delivered off the cuff.

"Most people do not know that the speech which he actually gave was not the speech that he had intended to give," Jones recalled. "In fact ... as he was reading from the text of his prepared speech, there came a point when (gospel singer) Mahalia Jackson, who was sitting on the platform, said, 'Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.'

"When Mahalia shouted to him, I was standing about 50 feet behind him, to the right and to the rear. And I watched him ... just take the text of this speech and move it to the left side of the lectern, grab the lectern, and look out. And I said to somebody standing next to me, 'These people don't know it, but they're about ready to go to church.'

"I could see his body language change from the rear, where he had been reading like giving a lecture to then going into his Baptist-preacher mode. So the rest of the speech was spontaneous and extemporaneous. ... (There was) a certain percentage of the speech that he read, up until maybe, I would say, the seventh or eighth paragraph, was part of the written prepared text. And then he added on his own paragraphs after that." Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 G10

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