Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

Repost from January 17, 2022.


I spend a lot of time abroad, as do all members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and it’s weird being away from home for certain holidays. Being out of the US during Martin Luther King Jr. Day is especially surreal for me as, outside of Hiroshima (Dr. King was an anti-nuclear activist) and certain parts of Canada and Holland that hold festivities, it’s only an official holiday in the United States.

First observed in 1986, the US holiday is always recognized on the third Monday in January (Dr. King’s actual birthday was January 15, 1929). MLK Day is the only federal holiday designated as a National Day of Service to encourage all Americans to volunteer in their communities.

I shouldn’t have to give a history lesson on why Dr. King was so important, but in quick summary: In 1964 the Baptist minister won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. Dr. King led or was involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, and the Selma to Montgomery marches, among other protests. Dr. King worked tirelessly to oppose inequity, poverty, and war. Assassinated in 1968 while in Memphis to support the Sanitation Workers Strike and ongoing planning for the Poor People’s Campaign, he would have been 93 years old this year had he not been murdered at the young age of 39.

I can remember being inspired to learn more about Dr. King as a seven-year-old hearing U2’s “Pride in The Name of Love” for the first time. Although American schools usually give students the basics of Dr. King’s life and work, art can help us understand a person’s impact on more than just an intellectual level. A movie like 2014’s Selma, which chronicles the famous Selma to Montgomery March, certainly helped people see Dr. King in new, vulnerable, and nuanced ways.

The film was nominated for four Golden Globes (Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director—Motion Picture, Best Actor—Drama, and Best Song—Motion Picture) winning Best Song (“Glory”) for John Legend and Common.

David Oyelowo, who played Dr. King in Selma and received his first Golden Globe nomination for the role, spoke to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association about the film the year of its release:

“I am British and therefore, even though I was aware of Dr. King, it’s not part of my history, it’s not part of my culture, so all I knew really was the speech, that he was a civil rights leader, and I knew what he looked like, but that was pretty much it. It wasn’t until I read the script in 2007 and just had this visceral, spiritual reaction to reading about him…there was something about the man, not the political figure, that I just thought, whoa. His self-sacrifice, his desire to have love be the thing that opposes hate… these were all things that I hugely admire.”

Oyelowo also spoke about King’s enduring mission: “The Voting Rights Act, which was won in Selma, and LBJ passed, is now being eroded because the country has changed enough…And now that Section Five [of the Voting Rights Act] has been taken out…it means that again, people are being marginalized from being able to vote, so it feels very timely and very right that a film like this comes along and reminds people of what is won, and what is trying to be taken away and how necessary it is and [that] people died for it.”

It’s important to note that this year, in the midst of further attacks on voting rights in the United States, the King family has requested no celebration for MLK Day unless federal lawmakers pass voting rights legislation. So, let’s honor Dr. King — around the world — in ways that honor their request, while also furthering his legacy.

As Oyelowo pointed out, “[King] wasn’t a superhero, he was a human being …and in everyone’s lives, we have those little moments where we can go from being just us to doing something outside of us.”