Half a century ago today, Martin Luther King Jr was shot dead in Memphis while supporting striking black sanitation workers in that southern city.
For a nation still severed today along stark racial and economic lines, the death at age 39 of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning preacher and civil rights icon on the evening of April 4, 1968 was a devastating blow — a blow whose impact continues to reverberate in 2018.
As the anniversary of King’s assassination is somberly marked today around the U.S. and the world, we spoke to some of Hollywood’s leading creators and producers across the generations about his murder, and the legacy of his dream and work.
Selma & A Wrinkle In Time director, Oscar nominee, Queen Sugar EP, ARRAY founder
On this day 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was in a fight. A pillow fight with friends. They were enjoying a relaxed moment at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis before going to dinner at comrade’s home.
Ambassador Andrew Young once told me it was the happiest he’d seen Dr. King in a long time. The leader had been exhausted and worried for months prior. But on this day 50 years ago, he was content. I always take solace in this simple fact about Dr. King: that he smiled and laughed that day. A short time later, the bullet severed his tie as it pierced his jaw and neckline. The body of our warrior-minister-freedom fighter fell at the Lorraine Motel, just as his spirit rose — and his influence expanded across the world, across generations. Along the way, his identity as a man, as a human being, has been twisted and turned. A function of dehumanizing hero worship and the sanitization of a radical mind. However, we need do nothing more than listen to his own words to truly understand him. Not the handpicked words that paint him only as a dreamer. But his words on war. His words on the poor. His words on white supremacy.
Dr. King speaks to us now with great clarity.
His insights and ideology echo and illuminate to this very day. His words hold keys to unlock so much of the turmoil that many of us find ourselves in politically and culturally at this strange moment in American history. His words speak to action, not anguish. The great freedom fighter Diane Nash often says, “We shouldn’t dwell on his dream. We should develop his work.” Perhaps on this day, in celebration of a great life, we move Dr. King’s words from textbooks and sound bites, to our to-do lists. Perhaps we move from talking about how great he was, to working to be as great as he was. Perhaps we try.
Chairman/CEO, Entertainment Studios, Chappaquiddick EP
I remember the day Martin Luther King was assassinated clearly. I was 7 years old and in Detroit, Michigan and I was in the middle of the street playing softball with my friends. All of a sudden, my mother and my grandmother started screaming like I’d never heard them scream. Everyone was extremely upset, and I ran inside. My mother and my grandmother were screaming “they killed him, they killed him, they killed Martin Luther King, how could they do it.” As a child, it’s something I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget the pain that I felt and the pain watching my mother and my grandmother, it just brought them to their knees. I remember thinking, who could do this, and the next thing I knew, I looked down the street and I was looking down the barrel of a tank. The military and their troops had immediately taken over our neighborhood. It happened instantaneously. They were in place. The military was in place as if they knew.
Years later, Coretta Scott King said to me, and I’ll never forget, and this is something everyone should know when considering Dr. King’s legacy. She said to me that as African Americans we have four major challenges. She said number one, end of slavery. Number two, end Jim Crow. Jim Crow, in my opinion, was more damaging than slavery because it was just hang all black people, kill all black people. With Jim Crow, you’re no longer a property, you are no longer creating wealth for someone else so now, they’re going to terrorize you and murder you. Then Coretta said, the third challenge was achieve civil rights. I was born in ’61, so I was born without civil rights in this country.
Then she sat and she choked up, and this next statement changed the way I saw myself in my life forever. She said, number four, the real reason they killed my Martin was because he sought economic inclusion. All Americans must have economic inclusion and opportunity, she said, and he believed. Otherwise, we have two Americas, and two Americas won’t survive. We need one America. And that is the reason why they killed Martin Luther King because he was pushing for economic inclusion for all Americans.
The Chi creator, Emmy winner
No one ever told me how MLK was murdered. But I do remember seeing that infamous picture. The photo of all the black men surrounding MLK’s body pointing in the direction of where they thought the bullet came from.
It’s an image I still haven’t been able to shake.
You can feel the grief. You can feel the fear. You can feel the desire for justice just from that one picture. You can tell by the way MLK is lying on the ground he’s already gone. It still saddens me to think that a man who once spoke to the world so eloquently could be silenced with a single shot. It reminds me that gun control has been a problem in our country for quite a while.
I think his assassination has left a residue on our clothes we haven’t been able to get rid of. It’s a reminder that someone that prolific, someone that determined to fight for freedom, someone that willing to die for our human rights, wasn’t destined to live a long life.
He literally died fighting for equality. Very few people now are willing to go to a rally let alone take a bullet for a cause greater than themselves. I’m glad he lived. I’m glad he was so good at pretending to not be afraid. Because he must’ve been. He must have always lived in fear that one day — someone would attempt to kill the movement by killing him.
What I know as a citizen of this world in 2018 is that movements come and go. Our greatest leaders will die eventually. But we can’t always depend on the leaders to tell us what to fight for. We have to find the leader in us. Otherwise people will always think if they kill the leader they can kill a movement. And a movement must always be bigger than one person.
Marshall director, Oscar nominated producer, former president of entertainment for BET
In 1968 I was 6 years old, living in East St. Louis, a town that had become all black in the early ’60s. By then we had elected our first black mayor; the first black fire chief lived next door. It was a very political time. My older brothers saw a me in a sweat shirt with a U.S. flag on the front and wrote “black power” in marker on the black. The teacher at my all-black school, who was big supporter of then-VP and Presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey, thought it was cute.
In anticipation of riots like Detroit and Watts, the world-famous dancer and anthropologist Kathrine Dunham had been brought in by the state of Illinois in mid-1960s and she created a brilliant college prep program that brought in world-class intellectuals to teach high school kids as well as offering instruction in dance, African music and martial arts. She turned gang members into professional dancers and enabled my older brother to attend Yale.
Riots never actually happened in our town. Maybe because it was ours. Shortly after his assasination, one of our streets was renamed after Martin Luther King. Also, the building where I had gone to Head Start was reopened as the King Skating Rink; they had a huge poster of MLK on the wall. It was an enormous success. As years went by, the name morphed into Skate King and the original meaning was lost.
Not only did the city of East St. Louis celebrate Martin Luther King long before there was a national holiday, we had Malcolm X Day as well.
The legacy of Dr. King is so enormous, it’s hard to grasp it all. He’s a planetary hero. He’s a hero for peace, not war. He was an intellectual with populist appeal. Throughout his career he leaned into the most difficult problems, whether it was racism, economic inequity, or unjustified wars. He had a moral compass that could not be moved by polls and trends. The gravity of his work and life defy attempts to reduce him to a greeting card.
CHEO HODARI COKER
Luke Cage showrunner, Creed II screenwriter
Last night, the Black Panther sheets I ordered from Target arrived. And as I helped my sons remake their beds (kids are seldomly meticulous), I realized, as a geek who grew up with Star Wars sheets, it was the first time I’ve ever put “hero” sheets on a bed with a black man inside the costume.
Black Panther is a film produced by a black man, and written by two others, one of whom will go down in history as having directed the one most successful debut films of all time, regardless of genre. The sheets were delivered to a house that I pay for writing about another black Marvel superhero, Luke Cage.
What does this have to do with Martin Luther King? Everything. Because the ripple effect of the social change Dr. King fought and was murdered for 50 years have led to the opportunities that people like my uncle, Uptown Saturday Night screenwriter Richard Wesley in the 70s, Spike Lee, Reginald Hudlin, and John Singleton in the 80s and 90s and currently Ava Duvernay, Ryan Coogler, Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins, Donald Glover, Courtney Kemp, Kenya Barris, Issa Rae, Justin Simien, Lena Waithe, and numerous other writers, producers, executives, and lawyers take advantage of now.
Diversity in entertainment wasn’t a concern until the civil rights movement. First the movie theatres were desegregated, but it’s taken more than 50 years for the film and television business to get there. Is it better than it was? Absolutely. But there’s still a long way to go.
Yes, more of the same faces you see at the NAACP Awards are now at the Oscars, Emmy, and Golden Globes, and that’s a good thing. But there still will be plenty of times you pull up to a studio gate and its assumed you’re there to deliever a package. The faces in the commisary are still pretty pale. (Look around the dining room? How many fingers does it take?) You could invite every working black executive out to a dinner and you wouldn’t even have buy out the entire restaurant. Replace the phrase “working black executive” with “working black actor,” “working black writer,” and “working black actress” and “working black director” and the same is true.
That’s why, for those of us lucky enough to get the shot, we can never lose sight of the sacrifices of those who came before us. It doesn’t mean that every black film or television show has to have a message or a black theme, but it is important for us make sure there are strides in representation in front of and behind the camera, in honor of the sacrifices that were made.
I think both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, were they not murdered, would be fascinated by the mainstream reaction and reception of a film like Black Panther: Malcolm would be jazzed by the Pan African themes and unapologetic blackness, and Martin would marvel at the mainstream success, of people of all colors, around the world, enjoying the film numerous times for the same reason: it’s a good story being told, not just a good “black” story being told.
In a leafy Seattle suburb, in a county that was renamed for Martin Luther King 13 years ago, my sons sleep under Black Panther sheets knowing that, if they work hard enough, they can be anything he wants to be. True, things are far from perfect. Black men are only bulletproof on Netflix. Colin Kaepernick, like Muhammad Ali before can be banned in his athletic for standing up (or kneeling) for what he believes in.
But the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, the one he died for, is that even in these desperate disparate times, we can still achieve a better tomorrow. But it’s not going to just happen. We have to keep marching forward….always.
This week—50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed—@BarackObama and @RepJohnLewis sat down with a group of young men for an @MBK_Alliance roundtable to talk about Dr. King’s legacy and the courage it takes to stand up for what you believe in: https://t.co/Hdfsf3iuOs pic.twitter.com/Y0b0RpJ36D
— The Obama Foundation (@ObamaFoundation) April 4, 2018