Carolyn’s Online Magazine
MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr:
HIS HUMAN SIDE
On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis, Tennessee, to give a speech supporting a strike by garbage workers. To many persons his speech, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, appeared to predict his own death.
As I listened to Ralph Abernathy in his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about.
As a historical figure King has been shrouded in so much myth that it’s intriguing to try to make him flesh and blood, according to Katori Hall, author of a play The Mountaintop, a fictional account of the last 24 hours of King’s life.
In his Broadway debut Samuel I. Jackson, 62, fills the role of the late Martin Luther King, Jr. by stepping into King’s shoes and portraying the possible—the probable—emotions, regrets, and fears of the civil-rights leader on the eve before his assassination. It’s a haunting story of a man facing his own mortality.
In writing the play Hall had to move away from inspiring historical facts to make a drama, to ask how King talked when he was out of the limelight, behind the scenes. When he was not a pastor or giving public speeches. Hall strictly avoided using anything he said in his speeches.
The result? According to Jackson, the play shows King’s humanity and vulnerability in a new way.
Hall recognizes that we need our hero myths, but she also recognizes that that expectation sanctifies leadership, removing leadership from the realm of regular people, the source of our leaders.
King’s end to his speech indicates to me that somehow he knew of his impending death. Although he exuded strength in his words, I wonder about his feelings of vulnerability.
He spoke about leaving Atlanta for Memphis. As his party of 6 boarded the plane the pilot apologized, over the public address system, for the plane’s delay in starting the flight. The airline took extra precautions to check all the bags and the plane to ascertain that nothing was wrong because King was a passenger.
Upon landing in Memphis he heard there was talk about threats against him. He asked What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
He unconcernedly stated his uncertainty as to his future during the coming difficult days.
But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind…I’ve seen the promised land.
His goal was simply to do God’s will, regardless of his longevity. He stated he wasn’t worried about anything, he didn’t fear any man.
He’d wondered who Ralph Abernathy’s was talking about, as did Hall while she wrote this play, and Jackson, as he stepped into King’s shoes.
I haven’t seen the play, but, like Hall, in my writography* I attempt to find the picture behind the character, the picture of the real person, not the public person performing their profession.
We undo our heroes today by scratching so far beneath the surface that our heroes humanity isn’t uncovered, its scourged.
One doesn’t have to do this to show our heroes humanity, to know they are a part of the realm of regular people, the source of our greatest leaders. This provides hope that anyone can become a leader. This is part of what King’s life shows us.
From what I’ve read, Hall did more than an acceptable job of portraying King’s humanity. And someday I hope I’ll be able to see this play. Perhaps it will reveal the King Abernathy introduced as King presented his I Have A Dream speech.
*writography: a combination of writing and photography