How Martin Luther King Jr.’s death impacted the entertainment industry

April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In a banner story, Variety said the national grieving was profound and the entertainment industry’s reaction was unprecedented: “But then, King was more than just an individual; he was a symbol of civil-rights equality to all men of good will.”

King’s death was on a Thursday, and President Johnson declared Sunday as a national day of mourning. ABC carried live coverage on Monday, April 8, of the march in Memphis, the city in which King was killed. It aired a primetime special on Dr. King that evening, and also featured live coverage of the funeral from Atlanta April 9. But according to Variety, the other networks reported no primetime program changes.

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Martin Luther King, Jr.
C8MG9A Martin Luther King, Jr.. Image shot 1963. Exact date unknown.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King and Malcolm X
MONTGOMERY, AL - MAY 1956: Civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. relaxes at home in May 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
MONTGOMERY, AL - MAY 13: Civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks with people after delivering a sermon on May 13, 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
MONTGOMERY, AL - MAY 1956: Civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. relaxes at home with his family in May 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 - 1968) sits on a couch and speaks on the telephone after encountering a white mob protesting against the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama, May 26, 1961. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)
Martin Luther King Jr, at a press conference after meeting with President Johnson at the White House to discuss civil rights, Washington DC, December 3, 1961. (Photo by Warren K. Leffler/Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
Civil Rights leaders Fred Shuttlesworth (left), Martin Luther King Jr (center), and Ralph Abernathy (right) attend a funeral for victims of the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963. The September 15, 1963 bombing killed four young African-American girls. (Photo by Declan Haun/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
President Lyndon B Johnson (1908 - 1973) discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 - 1968). The act, part of President Johnson's 'Great Society' program trebled the number of black voters in the south, who had previously been hindered by racially inspired laws, 1965. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
MONTGOMERY- MARCH 25: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seen close from the rear, speaking in front of 25,000 civil rights marchers, at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march in front of Alabama state capital building on March 25, 1965. In Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen Somerstein/Getty Images)
MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 25: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before crowd of 25,000 Selma To Montgomery, Alabama civil rights marchers, in front of Montgomery, Alabama state capital building. On March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)
African-American man holding Martin Luther King Jr flag - Washington, DC, USA
The Martin Luther King Jr., memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
The Rev Al Sharpton speaking at a Dr, Martin Luther King jr Day rally.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meeting with US President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office of the White House December 3, 1963 in Washington, DC.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meeting with US President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Cabinet Room of the White House March 18, 1966 in Washington, DC.
Funeral of reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Girl Scouts in Martin Luther King Jr Day Celebration
Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Washington DC dc12 national park monument near National Mall
Detroit, Michigan - June 22, 2013 - Thousands of civil rights, labor, and community activists commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Walk to Freedom" with a march that followed the same route down Woodward Avenue. At the 1963 civil rights march, Dr. King previewed his "I Have a Dream" speech which he delivered two months later at the March on Washington. © Jim West/Alamy Live News
Controversial paraphrased quote on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Martin Luther King, Jr. with wife Coretta Scott King
MLK with Labor Unions
Martin Luther King, Jr. during the March on Washington
Martin Luther King Jr. at the 'Pacem in Terris' Peace Conference
Martin Luther King, Jr. arriving at London Airport
Tourists visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., USA
Martin Luther King, Jr., T-Shirt commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, D.C., USA
Martin Luther King Jr Day Rally
India Martin Luther King postage stamp, cancelled
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (right), President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Mathew Ahmann (center), Executive Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interrracial Justice during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC.
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King’s death set off violent protests in multiple cities. Variety’s Army Archerd reported that Audrey Hepburn had flown to L.A. for the Academy Awards, and said Europeans were very concerned: “They think a civil war is coming again.”

In 1978, Abby Mann, a writer known for his socially conscious scripts (“Indictment: The McMartin Trial,” “Judgment at Nuremberg”), wrote and directed “King,” a miniseries starring Paul Winfield. Since then, the civil-rights leader has been depicted in many film, television and stage works, including the TV movie “Boycott,” with Jeffrey Wright as King; the Ava DuVernay-directed “Selma” in 2014; and Katori Hall’s play “The Mountaintop,” which starred Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in the Broadway production.

That play opened in 2011, the same year that the Martin Luther King Memorial was unveiled in Washington D.C.

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