Smithsonian Channel is about to get some new hardware to add to its fast-growing awards collection. On Wednesday, March 27, the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication announced this year’s George Foster Peabody Award recipients, and the six-year-old Channel got the call.
The Peabody Award is the oldest and among the most prestigious annual awards in electronic media, started in 1941 to recognize exceptional work made for radio, the web and television. Smithsonian Channel won a documentary award for MLK: The Assassination Tapes, its 2012 film by producer Tom Jennings that tells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968 entirely from historical news reports and rare footage—no narrator or interviews.
“The technique really brings out the raw drama of the narrative,” says the Smithsonian Channel’s Executive Vice President of Programming and Production David Royle, an executive producer on the show. “When you watch the film, it’s as if you’re sitting at home watching it on television for the first time. It has a real visceral immediacy to it.”
Jennings gathered most of his footage from a fortuitous source. When Memphis’s mostly black sanitation workers went on strike in February 11, 1968, several faculty members at the University of Memphis began collecting every piece of media they could find relating to the strike, convinced of its historical importance. King showed up in the city to lend his support, and was shot on his motel balcony a day after delivering his famous “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” address at the city’s Mason Temple. Memphis’s faculty saved all the coverage of his death and its aftermath in their Special Collections Division, so they wound up with a rare, big-picture account of the murder and its elaborate social context.
“It was startling to me just how volatile America was in 1968,” says Royle. “In the film, you see the long-simmering anger on both sides of the racial divide absolutely boiling over. It is intense. It’s not that there aren’t racial issues confronting America today, but what you see is just so out of control, and so angry. It brings it home that I think a lot of us have forgotten about, even people who lived through that; it’s hard to remember just what a knife edge America was balanced on in those years.”
Royle believes that witnessing Americans tackling these issues in King’s time provides a lesson of hope and perseverance for modern viewers. “It’s important for a younger generation that we see people confront what was going on, and to appreciate the courage of the past,” he says. “I think it gives people who are confronting today’s version of injustice courage to also stand up for what they believe in. Even though this story is infused with tragedy, it is ultimately a film of triumph. It’s a film of justice overcoming injustice.”
This year’s 38 other Peabody winners include a This American Life story about Guatemalan immigrant whose supposed father led the massacre of his village, a blog about the daily and historic workings of the Supreme Court and Lena Dunham’s mega-popular HBO comedy-drama “Girls.” The awards will be presented at a ceremony in May, but there’s no need to wait around to see MLK: The Assassination Tapes in action—watch the whole film above!