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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.

Courtesy of Morehouse College

There could be no better choice than actor Samuel L. Jackson to portray Martin Luther King Jr. in the upcoming Broadway play The Mountaintop. Jackson was a student at King's alma mater, Morehouse College in Atlanta, that fateful April evening in 1968 when the civil rights leader was assassinated. The actor acknowledges that his life and career were profoundly affected by that event.

It will be Jackson's Broadway debut, in a role he relishes. The play takes place on April 3, 1968, the night before the civil rights leader was slain. The plot follows King back to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., after his prophetic "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech. There he confronts his legacy shortly before death.

A Night to Remember

The evening 45 years ago when the awful news of King's assassination was broadcast is permanently etched in the memories of all of us who attended Morehouse at the time. "I was angry about the assassination but not shocked by it," Jackson, who'd been a budding social activist at the time, later told Parade magazine.

While King is celebrated today, we were mourning a terrible loss that night. In 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was not the mythological figure he is now. To us he was a very real, flesh-and-blood person. Upon hearing the news, students from across the Atlanta University Center -- including Spelman, Clark and Morris Brown -- instinctively, almost hypnotically, began arriving with their bedrolls at Morehouse's Archer Hall Gymnasium to spend the night huddled in grief, prayer and consolation.  

A passive response to King's death was not good enough for student Sam Jackson, who later told an interviewer, "I knew that change was going to take something different -- not sit-ins, not peaceful coexistence." After serving as an usher at King's funeral, Sam surprised many of us when he immediately headed for Memphis, where the murder had taken place. Determined to finish the protest that King had started, he locked arms and marched through the streets with the city's black sanitation workers, who were seeking a livable wage.

A Tale of Two Semesters

The tale of the two semesters of 1968 is told through the pages of the Morehouse College yearbook, The Torch. The cover is embossed with the school emblem, the sun cresting over clouds bearing the Latin inscription "Et facta est lux," meaning "Let there be light."

The coverage of the first semester is a display of mug shots of eager young men whose wide smiles and polished faces are testament to the endless possibilities of youth. On page 61, there is a photograph of a beaming, young sophomore named Samuel Jackson from Chattanooga, Tenn., wearing his trademark madras-plaid summer sports coat. Upperclassman James Early remembers Sam as a quick study who never passed up a chance to debate anybody, anytime, anywhere -- on any subject.

The tragedy of the second semester of '68 is contained on the back pages of The Torch, in a photo spread titled, "Our Fallen Leader King Comes Home." It shows tearful mourners touching the casket of Martin Luther King Jr. as he lies in repose at Spelman Chapel. It shows Coretta Scott King accepting the hand of a kneeling Stokely Carmichael. It shows Sen. Ted Kennedy and former Vice President Richard Nixon, sitting together at the wake, heads bowed in respect. It shows a distressed Sen. Robert Kennedy, who would meet a similar fate less than two months later.