This column was originally published in January 2011 and written by former Patch Editor Renée Canada.
Today marks the anniversary of the birth of civil rights’ leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To me, this day has come to be not so much about the birth of a single man, but about the birth of a movement that I believe began even before King was born, was emboldened by his actions and words, and continues to this day.
It is larger than the African American Civil Rights movement. It is about, in the words of King himself, “the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” of all mankind.
I believe every great idea begins with a dream and King was all about having dreams. As an artist, I naturally am drawn to look to the creative works of others—most notably documentaries, mini-series and movies here—that personally speak to me about what this day embodies, or that in some way help to celebrate the day.
King (The Documentary)
This afternoon, The History Channel will air the special King from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Made in 2008, 40 years after Dr. King’s assassination, newsman Tom Brokaw hosts a look through the life and times of the civil rights visionary, looking beyond the legend, facing myths and examining the relevance of King’s message today. It includes interviews with an array of famous figures, from his son Martin Luther King III to Bono, former President Bill Clinton to Chuck D, and others.
King (The Mini-Series)
King, the 1978 Emmy-nominated TV mini-series, tells the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., beginning with his early years as a Southern Baptist minister, leading up to his assassination in Memphis in 1968. Made before Dr. King was recognized by the nation for the major civil rights leader that he is known as today, this series was revolutionary in changing the way many thought about the movement. King is played by Paul Winfield, who was nominated for the Academy Award for the film Sounder, where he starred as the son of an imprisoned black sharecropper in the South during the Depression. Starring Paul Winfield as Martin Luther King, Jr., the film also stars the greats Ossie Davis and Cicely Tyson.
To this day, Malcolm X remains a controversial figure in American history. While he has been criticized by some as being violent, a black supremacist and anti-semitic, others embraced Malcolm X for being an advocate for African-American rights, a mesmerizing public speaker and a powerful leader who was ahead of his time.
“He was a gangster type, who grew up in a ghetto in a shadow of ignorance, but was rising out of that past and found God, ” said one Tolland resident. “He was a man with a good heart who was going on to do a lot of good things, which was why the Black Muslims had him killed when he tried to get out their grip and have them exposed.”
Denzel Washington starred in the 1992 film, Malcolm X, based on the leader. The film won numerous awards and was nominated for two Oscars. Washington did a brilliant job bringing to life the complexities of the man.
After watching this riveting film about a passionate figure of history seen in such contrasting lights, I was inspired to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It was named one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century by Time magazine. After reading the equally fascinating book, I was even more intrigued by the man. One wonders what else Malcolm X might have gone on to do if he hadn’t been assassinated.
The Ernest Green Story
While this movie is not as well known as the true-life story that inspired it, I grew to love it as a child when it used to be shown on The Disney Channel regularly at this time of year. Morris Chestnut, who is better known for his roles in Boys n the Hood and on the TV series V, stars as Ernest Green, one of the nine black students who enrolled in the all-white Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
This movie hit me especially hard at the time because I thought of my mother growing up in a city in the south, a teenager only five years after this painful integration. To envision the hatred these youth faced not just by other ignorant people in that city, but by government officials and the National Guard, I was deeply inspired by the courage and tenacity these teens, their families and the people who supported them had. The movie had me crying at their suffering and also rejoicing with their eventual triumph.
With All Deliberate Speed
On May 17, 1954, in the case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that establishing separate public schools for black and white students was unconstitutional. This ruling overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 that enabled state-sponsored segregation, laying the groundwork for integration and the American civil rights movement.
It wasn’t until after I had seen a fictionalized version of history that I found out that my mother’s uncle, Reverend Joseph A. Delaine, was an instrumental figure in the civil rights movement himself. Briggs v. Elliott was the case in South Carolina that was the first of the five cases that fed into the Brown v. Board landmark case to end segregation in public schools. My uncle’s church and home were burned because of his involvement in that case, and after that point, he lived in fear for his family’s safety until they moved to the northeast. Part of his story is uncovered in the 2004 documentary, With All Deliberate Speed.
With All Deliberate Speed aims to capture the legacy of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case where it was ruled that: "in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place." This documentary tells what are, for many, the previously unheard stories from people directly responsible for, and greatly affected by, the case.
While the above documentaries and films embody the "African American Civil Rights Movement," it is my belief that civil rights transcends nationality, skin color, creed and time. The stories of those who endured injustice, cruelty and death in the past—whether because their civil rights were ignored (or not yet identified) or stolen from them—informed the American civil rights movement, just as ours affected the lives of others in far away lands.
When I think of civil rights injustices, struggles and triumphs, I can’t help but think too of the Holocaust, apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda and, after this morning, also the modern-day slavery of human trafficking. This is not to take away from any single story but rather to bring us together in solidarity and hope.
These are other movies that this day also calls to my mind:
A movie that I usually include in my top films of any genre is Schindler’s List, which won seven Oscars for the story of a greedy German businessman who gradually grows concerned with the horrific Nazi treatment of the Jews, enough to turn his factory into a refuge. While it painfully, while necessarily, chronicles the organized, mass genocide of a people, it is ultimately uplifting by sharing the true story of an unlikely hero who manages to save more than a thousand Jews from being exterminated at Auschwitz.
I also think of 2008’s Defiance, which told the story of the Bielski brothers who took cover from Germans in the deep forests of Poland and Belorussia, initially fending for their selves to survive. Eventually, they come to lead an army of other Polish Jews—men and women, children and elderly—fleeing German-occupied Eastern Europe. While not a classic in the sense that Schindler’s List is, Defiance inspires by leading a battle cry of the spirit.
The Color of Friendship
While a child, another Disney favorite was The Color of Friendship, which brought the story of apartheid down to the level I could easily understand. A black U.S. congressman’s family does a student exchange with a girl from South Africa, who they expect will be black but is white. The South African girl lives on a farm at home, where her policeman father is pleased when activist Steve Biko is caught by the authorities, and when she finds out where she is going to be staying in the U.S., tension ensues. Somehow, despite the differences in belief and frequent cultural misunderstandings between the girls, they develop a beautiful friendship. While a bit simplistic, it was quite well done.
More recently and famously, Invictus starred Morgan Freeman as South African President Nelson Mandela who, after being freed as a political prisoner, used the sport of rugby to unite his nation, which had been torn asunder by apartheid. The sole black rugby player on the national team seeking the World Cup helps draw the admiration of children, but the captain, played by Damon, leads the charge to help cross the divide. Ultimately, Mandela succeeds in uniting South Africa, instilling national pride, regardless of skin.
Honorable Mentions: Sarafina! A musical about apartheid that has Whoopi Goldberg? Based on the Broadway production that garnered Tony Awards, the film, while uneven in parts and telling a painful reality, starred great young actors, spoke of dreams and pride, and managed to move me quite a bit.