Broadcast veteran tackles civil rights issues in Martin Luther King documentary

Trevor McDonald with Sarah Collins Rudolph, survivor of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham Alabama in 1963
Trevor McDonald with Sarah Collins Rudolph, survivor of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham Alabama in 1963

Trevor McDonald has long had a dream to make a documentary about one of his heroes, Martin Luther King.

Speaking last year about his upcoming projects, he said: “I’ve been asked to do some other programmes in America. I’m hoping to do one on the Martin Luther King anniversary, which will give me a chance to get my teeth into something I’ve always been interested in, the whole civil rights thing in America...”

And now, he’s getting to fulfil his ambition with Martin Luther King by Trevor McDonald, which is broadcast ahead of the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.

Starting with King’s monumental I Have a Dream speech (a recording of which McDonald picked as one of his Desert Island Discs when he appeared on the Radio 4 show in 1994), the veteran broadcaster works back to learn how this icon of the civil rights movement became a leader almost by accident.

It’s a journey that takes him to the American South and the Alabama cities of Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, where King was met with the ugly face of bigotry and violence.

McDonald also makes a return visit to the motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where King was assassinated (it previously featured in an episode of his travelogue The Mighty Mississippi).

Along the way, he speaks to some of the people who knew King, including key allies such as veteran singer Harry Belafonte, congressman John Lewis and ambassador Andrew Young. He also hears from some of the women who helped behind the scenes, including Willie Pearl Mackey King, who typed up the address which became his most famous speech - although it turns out that the words ‘I have a dream’ were an off-the-cuff addition.

McDonald also learns more about just what King was fighting against as he reads excerpts from the Georgia Code Book of 1933, a book that included petty rules governing the segregation of every aspect of black lives, and speaks to a former member of the Ku Klux Klan and an expert on the horrors of lynching in 20th-century America.

It’s also a chance to reflect on how far America has come - and how far there is to go.

Speaking last year, McDonald said: “I was there for the Obama inauguration and, looking back at it now, it’s possible I read too much into that. We all thought it was a new age for America. I still think there are great pockets of America where civil rights are still a big issue.”

And he thinks that if King were still with us, he’d be speaking out about it: “Were he alive today, he would probably be on the march again. This time against inequality and injustice, the twin evils that still scar millions of black American lives.”

Here, McDonald speaks to black role models Naomi Campbell, General Colin Powell and the Reverend Al Sharpton about what King’s legacy means to them in what promises to be an inspiring, emotional watch.

Watch tonight on ITV at 9pm.