Leave it to Ted Koppel to pause before the presidential election to revisit a point sobering in its simplicity: The relatively brief span of time between the possibility of electing an African-American president and some of the signature horrors inflicted against blacks during the 20th century. While hardly Koppel’s best or most profound work — it’s the sort of thing he did regularly on “Nightline” — the hour provides a harsh and timely glimpse of the South’s inglorious past.
Despite the title — which deals with the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald, a young black man arbitrarily murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mobile, Ala. — the documentary explores various examples of racial injustice and how they touched the lives of living Americans. Notably, those interviewed include Alabama Congressman Artur Davis, a law student who participated in attorney Morris Dees’ suit against the Klan and seconded Barack Obama’s name for the Democratic nomination.
“Win or lose, we’ve turned a corner” with the Obama campaign, Davis tells Koppel.
Using stark photographs, Koppel recounts the sorry history of lynchings in the U.S. — culminating with the Donald case — as well as the white raid that decimated the town of Rosewood, Fla.
To history buffs, precious little of this is new except for the context, which is to juxtapose the then with the now. As most of those participating note, Obama’s candidacy — and even his potential victory — will hardly erase racial relations as an issue. Yet to realize that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech occurred a mere 45 years ago — when Obama was a toddler — represents a moment that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
After a major undertaking with his multipart series on China, Koppel perhaps rightly chose a less ambitious follow-up. Nevertheless, Koppel’s touch brings such stately authority to his reporting — especially compared with much of what passes for news — that even his minor efforts make you wish he was on more often.