Martin Luther King and Talk TV

This Martin Luther King Day, I share a little post on What-Might-Have-Been and What-Might-Could-Be. Out of curiosity I did a little delve into King’s television presence in the ’60s. As you might expect, he was a guest on several news-oriented talk shows, such as Meet the Press, Face to Face, David Susskind and even the Today Show. But to my delight I also found what I was hoping to see — towards the end of his life, King did some spots on some lighter entertainment programs, still talk shows, but ones that likely had a wider, broader audience, The Merv Griffin Show (above), The Mike Douglas Show (below), and The Tonight Show.

The Merv appearance was in June 1967; it seems pretty clear that Harry Belafonte brought him on the show, in the same spirit in which John Lennon would later bring Yippies onto such shows in the early 70s. An entertainer gets booked, and they bring their activist friend along to advocate their cause. I’m all for it! It gave King a new platform. The Mike Douglas appearance was in November of that same year, and King was booked on his own that time, alongside such safe personalities as Anita Bryant and Allan Sherman.

The most tantalizing of all though is his February 1968 appearance on The Tonight Show, two months before he was killed. Belafonte was the guest host; Carson was on break. I’ll take the risk of sharing the clips below, though Youtube often ends up taking stuff down. The first is heartbreaking, because Belafonte asks him him what he has planned for the summer — by which time of couse, King would be dead. But it’s also bittersweet because he discusses plans for his inclusive Poor People’s Campaign, which might have made life better for a lot of people, and might have won a lot of white allies at the bottom of the ladder, the same people who have been at odds with the left for decades. My hillbilly grandparents were enormous fans of FDR, and King was largely promoting a New Deal style idea. Sadly, the project didn’t long outlive King.

The second clip is of King being (mildly) funny and charming. And this too makes me think about what might have been. Remember Jesse Jackson on SNL in ’84? (D’oop! Guess I just dated myself! Well I remember it, anyway). King was just getting his toe wet in the wider world of television when he died. I wish he’d lived long enough to come into my living room in my day. I was just over two years old when he died.

At any rate, as I write this we are two days out from a Biden-Harris administration that (knock wood) might realize some of King’s goals. This is an annual day for dreaming. There can be no progress without ideals.