Journey to the promised land

Martin Luther King is laid bare, neuroses and all, in an honest account of his death

Radio 4's season of programmes looking at the pivotal political and cultural events of 1968 continued with 4.4.68 (29 March, 2.30pm), a forceful drama about the assassination of Martin Luther King by Jon Sen, a debut writer for radio. The hour started simply: two FBI agents, sitting in a car watching the Memphis motel housing King and discussing how they were going to kill him. No mention of James Earl Ray, or Donald Wilson, or the Mafia, or the Green Berets, or the bar owner Lloyd Jowers, or any of the other patsies in the conspiracy ballpark who maybe dunnit. Sen fingered the Feds for the murder, and that sounded about right.

So, outside the agents bitched ("He's even thinking of running for president!") and inside King (Danny Sapani) argued with Charles Cabbage (Danny Lee Wynter), leader of the activist group, the Invaders. Cabbage had little time for King's policy of non-violence ("I got none of your fancy words and cotton suits . . .") but King wouldn't budge. And the reverend was depressed - talking in private about bowing out and taking a university post.

Sen kept King brilliantly elusive. We rarely heard him speaking directly - more often down a bugged telephone line, through the wall of another room, or behind a door. The King in the play spoke in largely disjointed sentences and sounded beat. A rock star gone acoustic. A man on the skids with a premonition of doom that passeth all comfort. We heard tales of him staying up late with young women in his room, then drinking and falling on his bed at 4am. We heard him bellyaching about Vietnam and regretting his status. We heard him listening to tornado warnings over the radio, and breathing down his nose, so tantalisingly near in those moments that it was as though the actor and all the recording equipment were fitted inside a nut.

Sen's King wore his neuroses on his sleeve and his disciples got it straight in the neck. Jesse Jackson and King's right-hand man Ralph Abernathy slugged it out: "He ain't no saint!" "Maybe! But he's the closest we'll ever see." Even the spooks back in the car were having a particularly bitter, staccato week: "It's like he knows he's got it coming." "I've arrested sodomites more decadent."

In the end, King entered his Garden of Gethsemane (the motel bathroom) but emerged more together, poised to take some air on the second-floor balcony where he would soon be shot through the spine. He was still speaking about death as he went through the sliding doors, but his tone was slightly less ragged, as if he was in the process of remembering that, with the stakes this high, rotgut and chaos were a mere five-o'clock shadow. "Extreme love is fed by everything," wrote Iris Murdoch. Right on.

Of course, I was sitting there all the while teenagerishly wishing Sen would let this King burst out and incant: "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools!" Or "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me. Yet it can stop him from lynching me. And I think that's pretty important." But this wasn't a movie. In fact, the play contained only one of King's Greatest Hits, and just a snippet of it at that: "we as a people will get to the promised land". Two minutes later, he did.

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Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad