Martin King—he hasn't used the "Dr." or "Luther" or "Jr." for decades now—is living proof that even legends can get tired of being legendary. Pacing his spartan office at MSNBC's studios at Rockefeller Center on a dreary Wednesday in mid-January, King is pecking a text message back to his daughter about dinner plans tonight. It is King's 85th birthday and his family and friends are holding a party at the forever popular Sylvia's in Harlem, but his first priority is his new 8 p.m. show on MSNBC.
Dream On! With Martin King is, in many ways, another current events gabfest on a cable news channel. The set is hardly different than it was when Chris Hayes suddenly vacated the 8 p.m. slot just weeks ago, when a still-simmering scandal over explicit Snapchat exchanges with a diplomat from India forced the network to give up on All In, Hayes' struggling show that led MSNBC's prime-time schedule for less than a year.
The major change, of course, is that Martin King is still the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whether he calls himself that today or not. And what remains to be seen is whether King can turn that historic star power to ratings gold. King, after all, is more than twice the age of his predecessor, if not that much older than Chris Matthews, the Crossfire! host and King's longtime partner in anti-malarial campaigns in Africa. Whether King's obvious vitality will carry over to a young audience raised on Angry Birds and Twitter is what MSNBC management calls the "known unknown."
"Just Martin, just call me Martin," King says after finally getting his text message out through Rockefeller Center's notoriously thick walls. And before his visitor can offer any accolades, King is shaking his head and pointing at his phone.
"It's hard to imagine Steve Jobs signing off on these new swipe commands," King says of a fellow legend who is no longer with us. "I know they changed it months ago, but I'm old. Most people my age have given up and wait for their kids to set up the phones and download the games. I may be slower on the uptake, but I have not given up."
That goes without saying. In a career spanning seven decades, King has been a primary force in the remarkable and often painful transition from an America of legal racism to a nation that is both more equal in terms of skin color and dramatically less equal in economic terms.
As anyone who has seen Eddie Murphy's Oscar-winning portrayal of King in the 2007 biopic The Mountaintop already knows, King was a Baptist minister from the media backwater of Georgia who became a friend of presidents, a confidant of Bob Dylan, a best-selling author of both memoirs and public policy works, and the face and voice of the American civil rights movement.
What the movie leaves out is the stuff of right-wing blogs and AM talk radio. There were allegations of extramarital affairs, bad business deals including a dot-com era boondoggle that left the icon nearly bankrupt, and claims of mismanagement at the non-profit Southern Economic Justice Center he has run for more than three decades now. On the Internet, conspiracy theorists claim he "sold out" or "worked with the FBI," supposedly to elude the fate of his more radical contemporaries in the late 1960s.
Perhaps most hurtful to King, there was the Proposition 8 rift in California back in 2008, when surreptitiously recorded video of the civil rights leader making disparaging remarks about an African-American transgender performer were used in anti-gay marriage commercials run by a conservative group that has long been at odds with King's work toward reducing income inequality. King apologized and campaigned vigorously against Prop. 8, but the damage was done.
The scandal marred what should have been the crowning achievement of King's career, the election of Barack Obama as president. King was there for the inauguration, but surely heard the Washington whispers about Obama needing to keep "arm's length" from the American who did more than anyone alive to change this nation's deeply entrenched racist culture. That the new president seemed more willing to follow the agenda set by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh than honor civil rights history was an early disappointment for Obama's liberal supporters.
"A human being cannot avoid being debased in American society," King says when asked if he has seen Obama lately. "I will tell you what I see. I see a time when we aren't mired in this undignified and soul-crushing system that punishes the many for not being the few, but I can't say with any honesty that I see the way there. Sometimes I feel like Moses looking down on the Promised Land and knowing I can't go because I'm too old and too sinful."
After the broadcast, which King described in colorful terms as being an uneven performance with second-rate guests, it is time to go uptown for his birthday party. It is a relatively modest affair tonight, an elegant but much smaller-scale celebration than his 80th birthday, which was televised worldwide and featured celebrities including Outkast, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, the now-deceased Nelson Mandela, all living presidents including Obama (but not including George H.W. Bush, for obvious reasons), and Sheryl Crow.
If America is still far from the color-blind and equally prosperous land of King's still famous "I Have a Dream" speech from so long ago, tonight at Sylvia's there is something of that dream in evidence. The crowd is well-heeled and multi-hued—and if celebrities and broadcasters are over-represented, the same could be said of any New York party important enough to take over such a storied restaurant for the night.
Bill Clinton is there to give a Clintonian toast that will dance around his contentious nomination of King for the Supreme Court in 1993, fought so hard by Republicans that it permanently soured King's Washington ambitions. The two remain close, and it is Clinton himself who greets King when the town car provided by MSNBC stops in front of the restaurant. Hillary is there, too, but keeps a lower profile more befitting a candidate. Conspicuously absent is the Rev. Al Sharpton, who took such offense at having his better-known rival get the 8 p.m. slot that he packed up and went to a weekend slot on Fox Business.
The well-wishers tonight include Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, James Earl Jones (mum on reports of Star Wars voiceover work with new director J.J. Abrams), trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Governor Andrew Cuomo, BET chief executive Debra L. Lee, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Serena Williams, the singer Lorde, MSNBC colleague Rachel Maddow, Bono, Oprah Winfrey, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, and Mayor de Blasio along with his activist wife Chirlane McCray.
Beyoncé and Jay Z were rumored to be arriving with no less than the Obamas themselves, but such a fantasy double-date would likely break the Internet, and in any case the rumor proves to be just that.
As King says goodbye to his media interloper who tagged along more-or-less uninvited to the Harlem landmark, the octogenarian spots an old friend and 30 Rock colleague joking with the bouncers who don't seem to recognize the Absurdly Late At Night With John Lennon star and former Beatle. King's historic voice bellows over the doormen who seem twice as tall as any of the greying guests.
"Come on in, John!" he calls out. "Why that's John Lennon, of course you get him right in here."
The one-time revolutionary rock star shares a warm embrace with the still hell-raising populist reverend, with Lennon doing his "Very good to see you, Reverend Doctor, just wanted to see you about some problems related to being nearly dead!" elderly Liverpudlian routine with King that has already been viewed more than 11 million times online—you are forgiven if this iteration of the iconic duo seems more familiar today than their 1972 March Against the Vietnam War in Central Park that finally ended America's imperial war in Southeast Asia after weeks of suburban rioting.
Lennon, potbellied and wearing his trademark white rockabilly quiff, still has his acidic wit: He chided King for having the party at a restaurant on Malcolm X Boulevard. The two civil rights leaders never reconciled, and while King is alive and relatively well today, it is Malcolm X who has the national holiday and hundreds of streets and schools named in his memory.
But that was a long time ago, and for now the two living legends slip into the crowd, "the Mop Top and the Mountaintop," as they're known in those impossible-to-avoid web videos loved by the baby boomers, back to a birthday party that seems about to lift off.