Canada·In Depth

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Why he asked a Canadian to help 'heal a sick nation'

Janet Somerville reflects on working with Martin Luther King, Jr. on the CBC's annual Massey Lectures in Canada's Centennial year of 1967.

On anniversary of assassination, Janet Somerville reflects on time spent with civil rights activist

In July 1967, black neighbourhoods in Detroit and Newark, NJ, erupted in fiery rebellions against police brutality and all aspects of white authority and privilege. Out of this turmoil, King emerged with a call for a more militant, radical form of nonviolent social change: a campaign of mass civil disobedience in Washington.

Janet Somerville still marvels at the irony of asking Martin Luther King, Jr. to deliver the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's annual Massey Lectures in Canada's Centennial year of 1967.

Given the national celebrations that year, Somerville and her colleagues on the radio program Ideas had originally envisioned the prominent lecture series being delivered by a group of leading Canadian lights reflecting on Canada at 100.

Then "history happened," Somerville says.

King's 'new radicalism'

In July 1967, black neighbourhoods in Detroit and Newark, NJ, erupted in fiery rebellions against police brutality and all aspects of white authority and privilege. The uprisings left 66 dead, the vast majority of them black citizens shot by police, National Guardsmen and U.S. army troops (many just back from Vietnam).

Out of this turmoil, King emerged with a call for a more militant, radical form of nonviolent social change: a campaign of mass civil disobedience in Washington, D.C., to force Congressional action on the chief causes of the unrest: poverty and unemployment.  

Janet Somerville (right) and Del Mackenzi, pictured at a reunion in the CBC Ideas studio in February, were part of the CBC team that worked on the 1967 Massey Lectures that featured Martin Luther King, Jr. (Craig Desson/CBC)
With young black extremists ridiculing nonviolence, King sought to channel their legitimate rage and impatience with the slow pace of justice into a creative force for constructive social change.    

King's goals for what would become known as the Poor People's Campaign were nothing less than a guaranteed job or income above the poverty line for those classified as poor in America. 

To King and other thought leaders of the era, such as John Kenneth Galbraith, a guaranteed income was not an impossible dream. The U.S. government had the financial resources – all that was lacking was the political will.

King dedicated the remaining months of his life to building that will by alerting America to his belief that responsibility for the ghetto rebellions lay in the misguided priorities of a government more dedicated to war than to its desperate poor.

Media and the message

Central to King's efforts were the national and international news media, which continued to grant him privileged access despite his darkening prognosis for America.

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a massive peace rally in New York on Apr. 15, 1967. (U.S. Library of Congress)
This fact was observed by King's key media advisor, Stan Levison, in a phone call recorded by an FBI wiretap on March 25, 1967. "You're not just the man who's saying you must love them – they're getting the other part of the message, that there are certain sacrifices involved. You're going through something of a metamorphosis ... they don't quite know where to put you. And until they do, they've got to keep watching you."

It was precisely this "metamorphosis" in King that captured the attention of a young producer at Ideas, Lew Auerbach. Started in 1961, the Massey Lectures (then led by Phyllis Webb and William Young) had evolved into an annual series by a leading thinker broadcast on Ideas, with John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul Goodman and Northrop Frye among the first lecturers.

Ideas documentary

On Friday, April 4 at 9 p.m. on CBC radio, a special Ideas documentary marks the 46th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination with the untold story of the making of his historic Massey Lectures in 1967. For the first time, producer Janet Somerville and her former colleagues share their memories of working with the 38-year-old civil rights leader in New York and at his home base in Atlanta just four months before his murder on April 4, 1968.

The program also features personal recollections from King's close friends Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Cotton, sociologist and former student activist J. Herman Blake, as well as the historical insight of Pulitzer-Prize winning author David Garrow.

Auerbach, who had recently immigrated to Canada from the United States, suggested King deliver the Massey Lectures for 1967, and Somerville, the senior producer at Ideas responsible for the lectures, approached King in a letter dated Aug. 11, 1967: "This summer's harsh new evidence (on several continents) has made the case for non-violence harder to hear. We need to hear it argued with all the new evidence considered. But this same summer has also begun to demonstrate to everyone the interconnectedness of the problem of violence – world-wide, history-long, bone-and-soul-deep... Anything implied by the question 'is it human to hope to move forward without violence?' is relevant to the series we would like to broadcast."

Somerville says she "hardly dared to hope" that King would say yes, but he did.

King used the Massey Lectures to elaborate on his understanding of the connections between racism, militarism and poverty. He also spoke of his emerging vision of American civil rights movement as part of an international freedom struggle against the economic exploitation of the poor.

It was a message that resonated in more ways than one with Somerville.

A devout Roman Catholic who would later go on to serve as General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, Somerville grew up in a household steeped in the tenets of the Social Gospel and a Christian's duty to promote social justice. This commitment would eventually lead her to pursue a graduate degree in theology.

"I got King intuitively," she says. "And he got me intuitively."

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters in Washington D.C., during the peaceful March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963. The gathering is regarded as helping the passing of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act into law.
To Somerville, there was no doubt that the Baptist preacher from Atlanta was a living prophet. "Prophets are people who stand in the turmoil of history and communicate to their brothers and sisters some aspect of God's vision of what's going on in the human world at that time … of course King was a prophet."

Somerville travelled to New York and then Atlanta, accompanied by CBC sound engineer Del Mackenzie, to work with King and his team on the lecture series. Her time in their company led to a profound appreciation of the personal cost paid by King for holding his country to account. 

"You could feel his fragility. I mean, you knew of his power before you met him, but it was the fragility of the man who had given-his-all, who had gone as far as his temperament would permit in leadership and effort and challenge and confrontation, and he really did need the support of those who loved him – and there were so many who loved him," Somerville says.

Witnessing King preaching to his congregation also helped the young producer better appreciate the essence of the man and the poignancy and drama of the struggle he led.

"That kind of commitment, that kind of trust and love between pastor and congregation, and that kind of translation of faith into hope and action for the transformation of the world was just the apogee of that kind of spirituality that I had inherited from my father and aspired to in my much fainter and less courageous way," Somerville says. "I was happy beyond words to be part of that experience."

Central to King's efforts were the national and international news media, which continued to grant him privileged access despite his darkening prognosis for America.
Not everything went smoothly, however. Somerville wasn't happy with the first recordings of King's lectures and told him as much at their first meeting in New York City. 

"They were boring. The delivery was monotone. They were a sanitized, weaker version of his vision," she recalls. 

The reverence she felt for King took a back seat to getting the Massey Lectures done right. In the FBI records of the wiretapped call, King told Levison, "I recorded it under bad circumstances. I had this bad cold and I was rushing."

Somerville says that more than anything, King was grateful for the fact she wanted to capture the full force of his prophetic vision.

"I think he recognized exactly what I recognized. Although I was a pipsqueak and he was a giant, we were exactly the same kind of product of the long history of Christian faith struggling with social justice. You know, the intersection of really grounded Christian faith with the burning questions of the day," she says.

Opportunity knocks

This shared sense of mission fostered a collaboration between King, his team and Somerville that the civil rights leader would not soon forget.

There was rioting in Washington in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s April 4, 1968 assassination in Memphis, Tenn. (U.S. Library of Congress)
In January 1968, a month after King's Massey Lectures aired, Somerville received a phone call at her Toronto home from the civil rights leader that would keep her up for the next two weeks. 

"He said, 'Come down here and help me heal a sick nation," Somerville recalls. 

A shocked Somerville listened as King went on to offer her a job ghostwriting speeches and texts for him.

In a letter dated Feb. 15, 1968, Somerville detailed the honour and hesitation that kept her awake over the 10-day period in which she wrote it. Addressed to Andrew Young, King's top aide, Somerville see-saws between her deep desire to accept the offer ("I suspect I would enter joyfully into a deep membership in the team... Canadian nationality, white skin, Catholic religion and all"), and her dedication to looking after her sick and aging mother. 

In the end, Somerville writes that she couldn't possibly commit to anything before the fall of 1968. "Let's see where the spirit blows us," she concluded.

King was assassinated less than two months later, on April 4, 1968, while organizing a march in support of striking garbage collectors in Memphis.

Somerville says she saw King as a saint as well as a prophet, which in a way prepared her for the inevitability of his death.

"I lived in a family that had lots of Lives of the Saints hanging around in my father's library, and the idea of martyrdom as a completion of someone's witness was very deep-rooted in my thinking," she says. "So, there was kind of an immediate sense that this was, in one way, a very fitting fulfillment of the witness of Dr. King. I love the fact that it was in support of the garbage workers. You know, the people who it's so easy to ignore - so few people would go all the way for garbage workers trying to start a union."

Though she never got the chance to work for King, her brief time with the civil rights leader and his people in Atlanta helped her see more clearly the path that she wanted to follow in life. 

"It was part of my recognition that actually my central work should be in the church rather than in broadcasting. The actual 'Ah-ha' moment didn't come until a year and a half later, but I felt so at home with the church-based aspect of Dr. King's work and of his team … it was for me the anchor-point, the place where my own conscience would be most supported and effective."


Stephen Smith


Stephen Smith is a journalist with CBC Montreal.


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