Producer Discusses His MLK Documentary

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Robert Siegel talks to producer Tom Jennings about the methods he used to unearth footage and sound from local Memphis sources to construct a powerful unnarrated documentary film about the April 4, 1968, killing of Martin Luther King Jr.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. On this day celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr., we're going to look back now to the events leading up to his death. King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. He was there to support striking sanitation workers who were trying to unionize.


DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: So I come to commend you and I come also to say to you that in this struggle you have the absolute support, and that means financial support also, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

SIEGEL: Memphis television and radio stations covered the sanitation workers' strike.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Police used riot control gas and knife sticks this afternoon to break up a disturbance among a group of striking garbage men. Part of the group is about 1,000 marchers began rocking a police car and police weighted in.

SIEGEL: And they covered the events of April 4th, when Martin Luther King was shot at the Lorraine Motel.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We have information that King has been shot at the Lorraine. Lieutenant, he has been shot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: OK. (Unintelligible) King has been shot, 604.

SIEGEL: Filmmaker Tom Jennings has taken local television and radio sound and images from that time, as well as that police radio sound, to piece together a documentary about King in Memphis. Much of the material was either never broadcast or broadcast once and never shown again. There are no new interviews and no narration, and the result is a film that tells its story as if you were changing channels back in 1968. It's called "MLK: The Assassination Tapes." And, Tom Jennings, welcome to the program.

TOM JENNINGS: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: First, how hard or easy was it to find all the sound and pictures you used in this documentary?

JENNINGS: Well, it was hard at first because the idea was to find local television and radio footage from the time that would help tell this story. And we called the local stations down there, and it turned out that most of them do not have an archive from the time. And next, I checked with the National Civil Rights Museum, which is at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated. And they directed me to the University of Memphis, which, it turns out, in 1968 several professors there had seen the sanitation workers' strike as a seminal moment in the civil rights movement, and they had begun collecting both television footage and audio/radio footage from the time. So at the university, there is an amazing treasure trove of footage that most of which has not been seen before.

SIEGEL: The image of King that I must say is very impressive after watching the film is that he is the voice of civil disobedience, of peaceful protest, and there also is a rage in the streets. And there are young people who are beyond his control. He is not the voice that is listened to by every black person in Memphis by any means. He is trying to steer a peaceful middle course.

JENNINGS: Yeah. He was in a very tough spot because the civil rights movement had been going on for several years, and many people felt frustrated that his message of non-violence wasn't working. And there were youth in Memphis that decided we're going to do it our way. And what he wanted to do was address the root of the problem, not to get someone to stop throwing a rock through a window, but why they would want to do that in the first place.

SIEGEL: At one point, Dr. King tells a crowd in the - speaking in support of the sanitation workers' strike that it was unfair for them to do full-time work for part-time pay. But you never actually - perhaps this is the format you're working in - we never actually hear numbers. We never actually are told how little the black sanitation workers of Memphis were getting paid and how that compared to white people's wages. Do you know, and was it simply impossible to find any archival source that would have said it?

JENNINGS: We didn't find archival sources that would give us exact numbers. However, there were some examples of how they were paid less. For example, when it would rain in Memphis and the sanitation workers could not go out to collect the garbage, they would be given the day off because of the rain. The people who were white, for whatever reason, were paid for those rain days while their African-American counterparts did not receive pay.

SIEGEL: As you were searching through archives of film from Memphis in 1968, was there any particular aha moment that stands out when you saw something that you hadn't expected?

JENNINGS: There definitely was an aha moment for me, and that was the day after Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis. The following day, about 100 ministers from the Memphis area showed up on the steps of Memphis City Hall demanding to see the mayor, Mayor Henry Loeb at the time. And they literally congregated on the steps with a cross in hand and marched into Memphis City Hall and marched into the mayor's office.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We are persuading that only when a spirit of flexibility and goodwill dominates can true peace and progress come to our city.

JENNINGS: They felt as if Dr. King's blood was on the city of Memphis' hands, and that if the mayor had behaved, in their opinion, more responsibly in the first place that King would have never had to come.

SIEGEL: Producer Tom Jennings, his documentary is called "MLK: The Assassination Tapes." It will air on the Smithsonian Channel next month. Tom Jennings, thanks for talking with us.

JENNINGS: Thank you very much.

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