Samuel L. Jackson recounts serving as an usher at MLK's funeral and fleeing the FBI

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The funeral procession for Martin Luther King Jr., in Atlanta, April 9, 1968. (Courtesy: CSU Archives/Everett Collection)
The funeral procession for Martin Luther King Jr., in Atlanta, April 9, 1968. (Courtesy: CSU Archives/Everett Collection)

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 50 years ago, on April 4, 1968, and in memory of that tragic day, Samuel L. Jackson has recounted the momentous events that led him to serve as an usher at the fallen civil rights leader’s funeral — and later to become an activist himself.

Writing in the Hollywood Reporter, the Pulp Fiction and Star Wars star reminisced about that era’s whirlwind sequence of incidents, which for him began with hearing about King’s shooting right before a showing of the movie John Goldfarb, Please Come Home at Morehouse College, where he was a student. Two days later, he was traveling to Memphis with I Spy’s Bill Cosby and Robert Culp — to support the ongoing garbage workers’ strike — before returning to Atlanta to work as an usher at the slain rights leader’s funeral on the Morehouse College campus on April 9:

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.”

Those experiences proved formative for Jackson, who soon joined a spring 1969 protest in which students locked themselves inside a college building with Morehouse trustees, leading to his eventual expulsion:

“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.”

Later that summer, Jackson fell in with some fellow antiwar activists, which led to further trouble, replete with a visit from federal agents:

“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.’”

Those formative experiences suggest that, had things gone even slightly differently, Jackson might have had a career in politics. Fortunately for cinephiles, however, they instead paved the way for his eventual decision to go into acting — and the rest is movie history.

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