Samuel L. Jackson: How I became an usher at Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral (guest column)

Samuel L. Jackson was a sophomore at Morehouse College in Atlanta when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. Four days later, Jackson participated in a march in Memphis to continue King's work supporting a garbage workers' strike; he also served as an usher at King's April 9 funeral in Atlanta. Jackson soon jumped into campus politics, eventually joining a spring 1969 protest — in which he and others held Morehouse trustees hostage — that got him expelled for two years. On the 50th anniversary of the assassination, the 69-year-old star recalls those tumultuous, tragic days.

When I first heard, I was actually in the liquor store buying a quart of beer, because it was campus movie night. The cashier said, "Dr. King got shot." I said, "Is he dead?" And he said, "No, not yet." 

I went to the movie — it was John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. 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. 

A couple of days later, these guys told us Bill Cosby and Robert Culp wanted us to get on a plane with them and fly to Memphis to march with the garbage workers. There was a lot of anger on the plane. We didn't know what to expect when we got to Memphis. We all thought it was probably going to be something physical, even though the National Guard was there. Culp and Cosby were trying to give us instructions on how to carry ourselves and enact King's dream of being nonviolent. It was cool that they'd take us to Memphis and foot the bill for it. 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. 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.

We flew back that night and went to Sisters Chapel at Spelman College, where Dr. King was lying in state. The next day was the funeral. They needed volunteers to help people find their way around campus, and I became an usher. I remember Mahalia Jackson singing. I'd been listening to her all my life, so it was great to hear her sing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" live. I remember seeing people like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.  People that I thought I'd never see, let alone have a relationship with later on in life. The funeral was pretty much a blur.

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C8MG9A Martin Luther King, Jr.. Image shot 1963. Exact date unknown.
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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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I hadn't been that political before. We didn't have a lot of civil rights protests in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I grew up. I read about the ones going on around the country and talked to my grandparents and my mom. When I went to college in 1966, that's where I met the first guys that had been to Vietnam. We were in the halls running around late at night, playing cards and music. These guys were studying and would get really angry: "You're gonna be dead if you don't buckle down and get with these books, because as soon as your status is wrong, next thing you know, you'll be in the war." We were like, "What war?" And then my cousin, who was my age, got killed in 1967.

I came to a realization that we were being groomed to be something that I didn't necessarily want to be. The Morehouse College administration was rooted in some old-school things that the majority of us students didn't believe. You would be a great doctor, a great lawyer, maybe a great scientist. I was skeptical of that. I didn't want to be just another Negro in the, you know, advancement of America card. We had no connection to the people that we lived around. I was skeptical of that. 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.  

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. They had these chains on the walkways to keep us off the grass, and we used those. Our understanding was that, once we locked them in, we were in violation of a whole bunch of laws. 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.

 

Courtesy of subject

That summer of 1969 I was working at this place we had created called the Rap Brown Center. We fed kids in the morning and did field trips and lived in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee house in Atlanta. I was a hippie, you know? I was taking acid and listening to Jimi Hendrix. I took this literature course my freshman year, and the first thing we studied was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The professor said, "You guys have some great ideas, maybe you should try this," and we started talking about hallucinogenics. 

I was anti-war because my cousin had been killed, so I had been radicalized in that way. I got caught up and actually started to think that there was going to be an armed rebellion in America. It wasn't just going to be a racial war. It was going to be more than that. It's basically what it is now. Young against the old. The establishment against the anti-establishment.

We were buying guns, which kind of put me on the radar of the powers that be. We were fully expecting a revolution to happen. That summer of '69, somebody from the FBI came to my mom's house in Tennessee and told her she needed to get me out of Atlanta before I got killed. She showed up and said she was going to take me to lunch. I got in the car and she drove me to the airport and said, "Get on this plane, do not get off. I'll talk to you when you get to your aunt's in L.A." 

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LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 12: Actor Samuel L. Jackson attends Warner Bros. Pictures' 'The Big Picture,' an exclusive presentation highlighting the summer of 2016 and beyond at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, on April 12, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Gabe Ginsberg/WireImage)
BURBANK, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 09: (EXCLUSIVE ACCESS, SPECIAL RATES APPLY) Actor Samuel L. Jackson attends the 2016 MTV Movie Awards at Warner Bros. Studios on April 9, 2016 in Burbank, California. MTV Movie Awards airs April 10, 2016 at 8pm ET/PT. (Photo by Frederick Brown/MTV1415/Getty Images)
Actor Samuel L. Jackson (L) speaks while actress Brie Larson (R) looks on during a press conference for the Vietnam location filming of 'Kong: Skull Island' in Hanoi on February 21, 2016. On location shooting in Vietnam for the upcoming film is due to begin next week for approximately five weeks. AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH Nam / AFP / HOANG DINH NAM (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
BURBANK, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 09: (EXCLUSIVE ACCESS, SPECIAL RATES APPLY) Actors Halle Berry (L) and Samuel L. Jackson attend the 2016 MTV Movie Awards at Warner Bros. Studios on April 9, 2016 in Burbank, California. MTV Movie Awards airs April 10, 2016 at 8pm ET/PT. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for MTV)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 13: Samuel L. Jackson arrives ahead of the Australian premiere of The Hateful Eight at Event Cinemas George Street on January 13, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
WATCH WHAT HAPPENS LIVE -- Pictured: Samuel L. Jackson -- (Photo by: Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 05: Actors Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh attend the 2015 National Board of Review Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on January 5, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)
LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Episode 306 -- Pictured: Actor Samuel L. Jackson during an interview on January 5, 2016 -- (Photo by: Jon Pack/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 04: Actor Samuel L. Jackson attends 2015 New York Film Critics Circle Awards at TAO Downtown on January 4, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 21: Filmmaker and Director Quentin Tarantino and actor Samuel L. Jackson pose at the Hollywood Walk of Fame on December 21, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER: Samuel L. Jackson celebrates his birthday at an event To Celebrate Quentin Tarantino And The Cast & Filmmakers Of The Hateful Eight at The Nice Guy on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images for The Weinstein Co.)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 21: Samuel L. Jackson attends a Hollywood Walk Of Fame Ceremony Honoring Quentin Tarantino on December 21, 2015 in Hollywood, California.(Photo by JB Lacroix/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 07: Actor Samuel L. Jackson arrives at the Los Angeles Premiere of 'The Hateful Eight' at ArcLight Cinemas Cinerama Dome on December 7, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 05: Actor Samuel L. Jackson attends the Hateful Eight SAG Screening and Q&A at the Pacific Design Center on December 5, 2015 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by John Sciulli/Getty Images for The Weinstein Co)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 04: (L-R) Cast members Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell attend the ''The Hateful Eight'' special cast Q&A screening at the Egyptian Theatre on December 4, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by John Sciulli/Getty Images for The Weinstein Co)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 14: Actors Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Wesley Snipes speak onstage during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 7th annual Governors Awards at The Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland Center on November 14, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - SEPTEMBER 18: Actor Samuel L. Jackson attends EXTRA's 'WEEKEND OF | LOUNGE' produced by On 3 Productions at The London West Hollywood on September 18, 2015 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by John Sciulli/WireImage)
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 11: Samuel L. Jackson attends the annual BGC Global Charity Day at BGC Partners on September 11, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)
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