Samuel L. Jackson: The Right One to Play MLK

King's death changed the lives of the actor and others attending Morehouse, his alma mater.

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It shows Harry Belafonte, Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young escorting King's family from the campus to the funeral. It shows the hundreds of thousands of people who lined the streets to follow King's coffin, borne by a simple mule cart on his final journey to his beloved Ebenezer Baptist Church. It shows the president of Morehouse College, and King mentor, Benjamin Mays delivering the eulogy.

The King family and Morehouse College are inextricably linked. Like many a dutiful Morehouse son, King Jr. followed his father's footsteps there. The Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. began his ministerial studies at Morehouse in 1926. Martin Luther King Jr. entered Morehouse at 15, despite never having finished high school, and graduated in 1948. And like their grandfather and father, sons Martin L. King III and Dexter King also went to Morehouse. 

Samuel L. Jackson and the King family are curiously linked. In 1969 a wave of student protests was sweeping across college campuses around the country. Jackson led a group of students who took over the school's administration building in an attempt to get more African-American studies into the curriculum. They were successful in gaining national media attention by holding the board of trustees hostage for almost a week. Those trustees included Martin Luther King Sr. and Charles Merrill Jr., scion of the Merrill Lynch fortune.

"It was not a moment I'm particularly proud of," Jackson later admitted on late-night TV. "What can I say? Sometimes when you are young, you make mistakes. My classmates will never let me live it down."

The Legacy Lives On

In the late 1960s, Morehouse was a small, close-knit school with fewer than 1,200 students and a graduating class of about 100. It was a fraternity unto itself, sometimes referred to as "the black Harvard of the South." For students who lived through the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., our lives were forever changed. The impact of King's life and legacy has had a profound influence on our personalities and careers, like Michael Lomax, a senior classman who watched over King's body at night and escorted dignitaries to the wake during the day.  

"I first met Dr. King over ice cream and cake when I was 9 years old, at my parents' house," recalls Lomax, class of 1968, and president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund. "I came to know him as a freshman when he would come to Morehouse to rally students. To see him lying there and know he had given up his life for a cause he believed in reshaped my own life and way of thinking. It obligated me to make a difference and has been the guiding force in my life of public service and education."   

"From the time I met Dr. King in my freshman year at Morehouse, during my career as a civil rights attorney and throughout my tenure in Congress," says '68 graduate Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.), "his unyielding commitment to service has been the primary source of inspirational motivation for me."

"Besides God and my own father, Dr. King has been the single most important influence in my life and ministry," recalls Calvin Butts III, class of 1971, senior pastor at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church and president of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. "He was a prophet -- a perfect blend of scholarship and spirituality." 

"Every year I renew myself by reading King's sermons and reflecting seriously on his commitment to international social justice," says James Early, class of 1969, now director of cultural-heritage policy at the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. "At every turn he challenges me to do the work that transforms and uplifts the human personality."