Rolling on a river steeped in history: Sir Trevor McDonald traverses the Mississippi to discover America's illustrious past
22:51 GMT, 23 March 2012
Sir Trevor takes in the magic of the Mississippi in a new series
The last news assignment I did for ITN was covering Barack Obama’s inauguration as the first black President of the United States. To report on that historic day was for me, as a black West Indian, of huge significance. I grew up in the era of the civil rights movement and it has informed my sense of justice ever since. So when ITV asked me to make a programme about the Mighty Mississippi and the role it’s played in the most dramatic events in US history, I jumped at the chance.
Stretching 2,500 miles through 31 states, the vibrant liquid highway is a witness to history and some of the most traumatic disasters – man-made and natural – America has experienced. Its almost magical transformation from a trickle of water rolling over pebbles in Minnesota near the Canadian border, to the greatest commercial waterway in America by the time it ends in the Gulf of Mexico, is thematically and televisually fascinating.
Making the series, over three months last summer, was an opportunity to work again with director Stuart Cabb, who produced my series on the Secret Caribbean and the Secret Mediterranean. After years at the hard, sharp end of news it was a privilege to be able to go back and reflect on history. Obviously I’d been to the US before, but when you’re following politicians on the campaign trail or at conventions you flit from airport to hall then back to airport. This gave me the chance to spend more time looking around at the social and cultural rudiments of the place.
Revisiting the scene of Martin Luther King’s assassination in a motel in Memphis – and the site of his last speech just hours before it – affected me deeply. You cannot help but be struck by the prophetic nature of his final address, ‘I may not get there with you’, in an eerie foretelling of his death. Rev Samuel Kyles, who was with Dr King that evening, is one of the men in the famous photograph in which King lies dying on the floor. He showed me the motel room where Dr King was murdered and explained that it had been preserved as it was and is now a museum.
Equally striking was a visit to New Orleans to see the destruction inflicted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I’d covered the disaster from London and was unprepared for the still discernible effects of the hurricane. No matter how much you read about things, nothing is ever as brutal as when you actually go to the scene.
Another example of this was when we
visited a farmer whose land had been flooded. He owned 60 or 70 acres
but you couldn’t see a thing, the whole place was like a lake. I talked
to him about how you live with the threat of flooding, and the conundrum
that no one needed insurance more than him, yet for that very reason he
couldn’t get it.
Witness to history: The river stretches 2,500
miles through 31 states; actor Morgan Freeman impressed Sir Trevor with
his 'extraordinary' voice
He was just one of the remarkable people we met, like the tug boat pilot who told me that despite its serene appearance the currents in the Mississippi are so strong that if you fell overboard your chances of survival are about 5 per cent. Or the swamp navigator at Atchafalaya in Louisiana who fed alligators marshmallows in the most primeval place I’ve ever been.
But the most extraordinary interviewee we encountered has to be the actor Morgan Freeman. Talking to him was completely out of my comfort zone and it’s the most nervous I’ve been before an interview. I’ve visited the White House as well as interviewing Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, but I don’t normally rub shoulders with film stars. I usually stick to politicians and you have a sense of how they’re going to be because they’re interviewed on TV every week.
With Morgan Freeman I didn’t know what
to expect, but I can tell you he didn’t disappoint. That voice!
(Incidentally, he told me he gets paid for those More Than adverts over
here which feature an impersonator. That has to be the pinnacle of
celebrity – it’s not even his voice!) My point of entry was Nelson
Mandela, as Freeman had played Mandela in the 2009 film Invictus.
No matter how much you read about things, nothing is ever as brutal as when you actually go to the scene.
I was the first journalist to interview Mandela after his release in 1990 and I must admit I made much of that in our informal chat before asking him if he’d appear on camera! I needn’t have worried – he was so accommodating. He was in Clarksdale, a town in the State of Mississippi near where he grew up, and he spoke about the racial tensions of the past and those still present today. Incredibly there wasn’t a mixed high school prom until he instigated one in 2008.
In fact the interview went so well that I may have developed a taste for celebrity reporting. I also spoke to an early girlfriend of Elvis Presley, who gave a rare insight into The King. She told us how kind he’d been, even buying her a car so she didn’t have to take the bus to college. Another stop on our journey was Sun Studio in Memphis where Elvis recorded his early hits. Did you know that he was too shy to look at the engineers and used to face his band, with his back to the sound box The spot he stood on is marked by an X and everyone from Bob Dylan down has travelled there to kiss it. It certainly sent a tingle down my spine.
But if you really want to see me out of my comfort zone you’ll have to watch the series and view me being lifted aloft – in a move dubbed ‘the elevator’ – by cheerleaders from the University of Minnesota. Now that’s a manoeuvre I certainly didn’t anticipate when I signed off from News at Ten!
The Mighty Mississippi begins on Tuesday 10 April, 9pm, on ITV.