"Martin Luther King Jr. -- The Making of a Holiday" is an easygoing, fun-loving glance at the black entertainers who helped build public support for the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
The star of the program, which airs today at 5 p.m. on Channel 4, is Steveland Morris, known to his fans as Stevie Wonder. He wrote the song "Happy Birthday" and led several marches to pressure Congress and the president to enact the King holiday law, which went into effect in 1986.
The show is heavily slanted in its focus on Wonder's song and other celebrity-led celebrations of the new holiday. The intricate and emotional politics of the holiday's creation are given only passing attention. The irony of President Reagan -- who's had many loud fights with the civil rights community -- signing the bill into law is ignored, as is the significance of giving the nation a holiday for a man less than 20 years after his death.
Right at the start of the one-hour special, host LeVar Burton announces, "With persistent conviction, the early supporters of the holiday continued to gain momentum ... but it wasn't until the voices of the entertainment world joined in that the nation as a whole began to get the message that Martin Luther King Jr. was a great man."
With that kind of introduction, historians, civil rights activists and political scientists may have to resist the temptation to throw bricks at the television -- some people thought King was great before Stevie Wonder honored him in song.
The urge to kick out the tube may grow as you watch mismatched historical footage of King's life. For example, there is one sequence where the pictures go from the Montgomery bus boycott to the Selma march in one step, for the sake of showing sheriffs beating demonstrators at the Selma march, in which King did not participate.
Okay, so this is not a great historical effort. But it is uplifting. And at times it is fun. And it is a celebration of King's greatness on the occasion of his birthday.
Here are Wonder, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte and Diana Ross. With that much talent on board, the show certainly has the power to entertain and inspire. And here are highlights from King's "I Have a Dream" speech and the moving conclusion of his "Mountaintop" speech, given the day before he was murdered.
Even the show's weak attempt to recount the political history of the holiday does familiarize viewers with the struggle -- if only superficially. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who introduced the bill only four days after King had been shot in Memphis in 1968, is interviewed and gives some details of the long struggle to gain congressional support for the bill. Coretta Scott King and D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy give further explanation of efforts to gain the holiday.
The opposition is reduced to cardboard-figure villains. There is TV news footage of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) talking about his filibuster against the bill, while more thoughtful arguments in opposition are not articulated.
But history is not the high point of this show. The high point is Stevie Wonder's rendition of "Happy Birthday" and the sight of black entertainers such as Wonder making a triumphant effort to get involved in a social cause. Of course, the highest of the highlights is King himself and the inspiration he gives as a speaker, as a role model and as a visionary.