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.
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."
"To be an eyewitness to history is a humbling experience," recalls Jim Moss, class of 1970, managing director of the PRM Consulting Group in Washington, D.C. "Dr. King made me understand that success carries with it the larger responsibility of reaching back to help those who are less fortunate."
Ronald Taylor, class of 1970, editor at the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington, D.C., says, "Dr. King instilled in us a sense of purpose larger than ourselves. He stiffened our resolve, gave us backbone. He made us all want to be better men."
King Comes to Broadway
The ties between Morehouse men and Martin Luther King Jr. remain strong with Jackson in the role of King in The Mountaintop. The play co-stars Angela Bassett as a mysterious woman who delivers room service to King as he ponders his fate. It is directed by Jackson's longtime friend Kenny Leon, with a musical score by Branford Marsalis. The Mountaintop was written by the critically acclaimed young playwright Katori Hall.
The Mountaintop is proof that the preacher may have died, but the sermon lives on. Preview performances start at the Bernard Jacobs Theater in New York City on Sept. 22, and the play officially opens Oct. 13.
Richard T. Watkins was a sophomore at Morehouse College in 1968.