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

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.

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.”