The office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) on Auburn Avenue, the historic heart of the black community here, bustled like old times yesterday.
Television vans lined up outside and, inside, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, a veteran of many civil rights fights during the '60s, faced the microphones and poised pencils.
Abernathy was announcing a protest. But this one, though it had the fiery rhetoric of the past, was somewhat ironic. The SCLC announced a "national protest" against a film about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the man who founded the SCLC.
"This is the most serious distortion to date" of the life of Dr. King, the group claimed.
"King," the title of the six-hour film scheduled to be shown on NBC in 1978, is now being completed in Hollywood. It was filmed mainly in Macon, a Georgia community 100 miles from here and the producers had the complete cooperation of the King family. Besides the children of King participating in the filmmaking. Coretta Scott King, the widow of the preeminent civil rights leader, consulted with the filmmakers.
The actors in the film, which will be shown in two three-hour segments, are Paul Winfield as King, Cicely Tyson as Coretta King and Ossie Davis as Rev. Martin Luther King Sr.
Coretta King had little to say about the burgeoning protest. A few blocks away from SCLC headquarters, she spent a portion of yesterday morning with Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere at her husband's gravesite and memorial. Asked about the charges of distortion, she declined to comment but released a statement saying it was premature to judge the film, now in its editing process.
"'King' is a drama and not a documentary, therefore, it should be judged as such. No one could be more concerned than I about how my husband's image is being projected, or the authenticity of the film in general," the statement read. The officials of SCLC said the film had literally changed not only sequences of history but King's personality as well. "The author at some point decided to remake history, to rewrite the movement," said Abernathy. "I feel very strongly that it should not be presented."
Hosea Williams, another King associate who said he had read the script of the film, said, "They've got Martin coming off as shallow, uncertain, kind of frightened, unopinionated . . . I just think it's going to be bad for black people around the world to see him being led around by white people," said Williams.
The SCLC has asked for meetings with Abby Mann, the writer and director, Paul Maslansky, the producer, and NBC officials. "We would like to sit down with the producer and NBC and ask them to redo the movie. It does not depict the strong, black leader Martin was," said one SCLC spokesman.