Samuel L. Jackson shares how Martin Luther King Jr.'s death led him to activism
April 4, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis. In a new essay for The Hollywood Reporter, actor Samuel L. Jackson wrote about his memories of being a young college student at the time, and how the Civil Rights leader’s assassination started him on a path of political activism that ultimately got him expelled from college.
“I went to the movie — it was John Goldfarb, Please Come Home,” Jackson wrote of his memories of April 4, 1968. “That’s the only reason I remember that movie. In the middle of it, this guy came in and said that Dr. King was dead and we need to do something. Everybody left. I went back to my dorm and couldn’t find my roommate. Came to find out he was already in the streets with a whole bunch of other people, tearing up and burning up our neighborhood.”
King’s death sparked riots in numerous American cities in the following days, and Jackson wrote of following Bill Cosby and actor Robert Culp to Memphis, where many were rushing to join the sanitation workers’ strike that King had been organizing there when he was killed. “We weren’t thinking of it in any historical context, but we were glad there was something we could do other than burn, loot and destroy our own neighborhood,” Jackson wrote. “That we could do something that’s going to make these people’s lives better. Especially knowing that King was killed for something as simple as, in that moment, a garbagemen’s strike.”
Thanks to the efforts of King and other Civil Rights leaders, Jim Crow laws in the South had been mostly dismantled by 1968, but black Americans still faced many obstacles. The Vietnam War draft was a constant threat, something Jackson realized after his cousin was killed there in 1967. College offered a refuge from the draft for those who could afford to attend, but college curriculums weren’t responsive to the needs of minority students. As Jackson wrote about Morehouse College, “We didn’t even have a black studies class. There was no student involvement on the board. Those were the things we had to change.”
Jackson wrote that he and fellow student activists staged a “lock-in” at Morehouse, for which they ultimately got expelled. “We actually petitioned the Morehouse board in 1969 to meet with them, but the black people who were around them said, ‘No way, you can’t come in here. You can’t talk to them. Somebody said, ‘Well, let’s lock the door and keep them in there,’ because we had read about the lock-ins on other campuses,” Jackson wrote. “Dr. King’s father, who was on the board, had some chest pains. We didn’t want to unlock the door, so we just put him on a ladder, put him out the window, and sent him down. The whole thing lasted a day and a half. We negotiated that they wouldn’t kick us out of school. And then when everybody was gone for the year, they kicked us out of school.”
Read more from Jackson, including why his mom ultimately shipped him off to Los Angeles, in his full essay at The Hollywood Reporter.