It can be said that the struggle over Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy has been largely settled for a long time now — to the detriment of history. “What do you make of the fact that, after that assassination, some version of him is made to be an untouchable hero? How does that happen?” asks the journalist Vann R. Newkirk II. “Because he’s dead,” replies John Burl Smith, a community organizer and one of the last people to meet with King before his murder in 1968. “He can’t do any more damage.”
Posed quietly, Newkirk’s inquiry is both leading and sincere. He likely already knows the answer, of course, but that’s besides the point. It’s a question still worth raising, again and again, with respect to how King and the Civil Rights Movement is preserved in American cultural memory. This is especially true today as right-wing forces continue to conspire to keep the full, complex picture out of educational syllabi or, at least, to strip those histories of any political teeth.
That exchange between Newkirk and Smith comes near the end of Holy Week, a magisterial new narrative podcast from The Atlantic, named after the burst of grief, fury, and violence that washed over the country in the wake of King’s assassination. The series follows 2020’s Floodlines, which Newkirk also hosted, carrying over a contiguous feel and spirit. Where Floodlines waded into the long shadow of unresolved history around Hurricane Katrina, Holy Week applies the same lens to the American failure to internalize the full scope of the Civil Rights Movement. This is a project that means to honor the damage.
As with its predecessor, Holy Week carries out its business with an ear for the present. It may well be a cliché these days to ruminate on the cyclical nature of history, how events and political currents seem to rhyme even as the world changes, modernizes, “progresses.” But just because the move is familiar doesn’t make it any less true. Loosely structured around the brief period between King’s death and his funeral, the series frequently pulls the frame back to fold in necessary layers of context. This includes the prominence of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a crucial civil-rights protest organization in the era, and the political rise of Spiro Agnew, whose channeling of the white backlash against the Civil Rights Movement would vault him from Maryland governor to Richard Nixon’s vice-president. (With this, Holy Week can broadly viewed as a kind of companion to Bag Man, Rachel Maddow’s popular 2018 podcast chronicling the bribery and extortion ring that Agnew ran out of Nixon’s White House.)
At almost every turn, the podcast offers threads that lead to our present moment. When the second episode, “Inferno,” opens with an old newscast covering the Holy Week uprisings, what’s evoked in the mind are scenes of the streets after the murder of George Floyd. When the podcast lingers on how the Kerner Commission — which had been convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of the protests in the summer of 1967 — threw its support behind a “Negro Marshall Plan” to systemically combat Black poverty, it’s not hard to hear traces of what’s now known as critical race theory (as in the academic concept, not the political bogeyman). The team behind Holy Week, which includes producers Jocelyn Frank and Ethan Brooks, wisely handles these echoes with a soft touch.
Holy Week makes another smart choice in the way it explores the Holy Week uprisings through a local frame. While the podcast treats the story of King’s assassination with a necessary sense of scope — cutting across the country from his murder in Memphis to his funeral in Georgia — it opts to render Black America’s reaction to his death through the experience of one location: Washington, D.C., and specifically, the Black neighborhood of Cardozo. To that end, the sixth episode, “Kingdom,” is a standout. Here, the team takes a breath to sketch out a picture of what was then “the Black enclave within the Black metropolis.” It was a space where a healthy Black middle-class experience materialized as white residents fled for the suburbs. “The ’60s, to me, it was the best time because, in D.C., we didn’t have no racial problems,” a resident named Theophus Brooks tells Newkirk. “Never heard anybody call me a [N-word] because you didn’t have that in D.C.” But as the episode goes on to note, the political currents of the ’60s would gradually reveal to the city’s residents that its conception of a middle-class paradise was more of a “Black limbo.” The rise of television made images from the South more present in their lives and cultivated an urgent sense of political consciousness. After King’s assassination triggered a totalizing and destructive wave of grief within Cardozo and around the country, nothing could ever be the same again.
Holy Week is a striking listen at a time when the podcast world is swinging toward smaller budgets and ambitions. As a continuation of Newkirk and The Atlantic’s work in narrative podcasts, it also feels like the crystallization of a distinct style. Like Floodlines, there’s a musicality to the series, brought to life with sound design by David Herman and some truly gorgeous music composed by Julius Eastman and performed by Los Angeles ensemble Wild Up. The score is rich with jazz-inflected minimalist ambience, heavy on brass, resulting in a vivid sense of melancholia. These elements add to and are complemented by Newkirk’s dependably engaging voice: quiet, inquiring, dutiful. We’re treated to occasional flashes of a warmer interior, particularly when a scene picks up on Newkirk’s small talk with interviewees. Those are some of the best bits.
The story of a woman named Vanessa Lawson, who was a child in Washington when the uprisings broke out, forms a through-line in Holy Week. Her narrative turns on a tragedy that happened during the chaos: Her brother, Vincent, had ventured out the night after King’s death to loot a department store in search of stockings for their mother. He never returned. Lawson’s recollections serve as the podcast’s emotional backbone and its thematic conclusion; Newkirk and the team end their journey with her. That structure directly mirrors the shape of Floodlines, which organized its storytelling around the experience of Le-Ann Williams, who was a teenager in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck and whose arc gave weight and tangibility to the podcast’s journalism. The repetition is notable. It may well portend the beginnings of some sort of Newkirkean formula, but the approach remains potent. After all, the human experience can get lost in the sweeping currents of history, but human beings are the ones who have to deal with history’s shadow.