The Two Kings: Shaping the Public Memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.

Curator's Note

The 1980s ushered in an era of the Black cast and Black-produced programs on television with the success of the sitcom The Cosby Show (NBC, 1984-1992). With this new visibility, came the need to shape public memory of the Civil Rights Era amid the supposed post-Civil Rights Regan era of the late 1980s. Two television programs released during this time focus on Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement in 1955-1956: a made-for-television movie musical sequel and a docuseries, Polly Comin’ Home (NBC, 1990) and Eyes on the Prize (PBS, 1987-1990). Polly Comin’ Home does not address the Civil Rights Movement directly. It focuses on the local election of a town and racial prejudice. Racism is charged as an individualistic moral responsibility. Whereas with the docuseries, racism is addressed on a systematic level; voting and segregation. The Civil Rights Movement is presented from what Morris calls a historical narrative dominated by top-down analysis (Morris, 29), with Dr. King being the center of both narratives.

Polly Comin Home and the first episode of Eyes On the Prize, center on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The two Kings they speak of are similar yet different. King in Polly Comin Home is one invested in ending prejudice and having Black and Whites living together in racial harmony. Whereas the speeches in Eyes on the Prize focus on fighting systematic injustices. King condemns the country for condemning Negros for standing up for their rights. The fictional King presents a harmonious Saint-like figure who will not endorse a candidate based on race. The docuseries presents a King who is not afraid to condemn political systems that oppress people. King's actual speeches from 1956, “Our Struggle” and “Walk for Freedom,” emphasize the hypocrisy in Christianity around racism. They do not draw on the passive ending of prejudice that Polly suggests. Both images of King show a complicated connection between historical memory, and popular culture, and how they both shape our collective public memory of historical figures and eras.

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