“I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”
Those were the words with which civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King concluded his address to an audience at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis, Tennessee, on 3 April 1968.
The following day he was assassinated by a sniper’s bullet as he stood on a motel balcony.
That extract from King’s final speech features towards the beginning of the Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975.
Director Goran Olsson draws upon archive footage of events at the time and interviews shot by Swedish TV crews to explore a fascinating period in the struggle against racism in the US.
Activists and artists provide the commentary, including the musicians Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Amir “Questlove” Thompson, Sonia Sanchez and Abiodun Oyewole from the Last Poets.
By the late 1960s, a generation of fiery young activists had become impatient with the limited progress achieved by the civil rights movement.
For them, King’s violent death symbolised the shortcomings of the peaceful strategy that he had pursued for more than a decade.
The documentary captures the likes of Stokely Carmichael, who emerged from the student movement, and Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, whom Carmichael later joined in the Black Panther Party.
They advocated a dramatically more confrontational approach, encouraging their supporters to bear arms and to confront the police.
This was not simply macho posturing. It was a daring attempt to challenge their most immediate oppressors and drive them out of black neighbourhoods.
In a moving extract, Carmichael is revealed as a thoughtful and sensitive soul as he cajoles his mother into talking about the wider, debilitating impact that racism had upon their family.
In another key passage, Communist Party activist Angela Davis is questioned about this more militant approach. At the time she was on remand awaiting trial on charges of murder, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy.
She wasn’t acquitted until 1972, so it would have been understandable if she had chosen to avoid the issue. Instead, she lectures the interviewer at length about the difference between the violence of the oppressed and that of the oppressor.
It would be impossible to present a complete picture of the dynamics of the Black Power struggle in an hour and 40 minutes. What Olsson’s film does brilliantly is capture the vivacity and spirit of this remarkable group of activists.
It also highlights the fact that the Panthers were far more than just self-sacrificing street fighters. They also laid on breakfast clubs and educational classes for schoolchildren.
At one stage their popularity was such that they were selling 100,000 copies of their newspaper. Sadly their demise was just as dramatic.
I don’t subscribe to the view, repeated in the Mixtape, that this was primarily due to a systematic covert strategy of flooding the ghettos with drugs. The Panthers’ courage and commitment cannot be doubted, but there are searching questions that must be asked about their failure to consolidate their meteoric rise.
This film does not provide the answers and, arguably, assumes a certain amount of prior knowledge.
It does however provoke debate and deserves a much wider airing.