On Jan. 20 Americans celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King if he had lived would have been 85 on Jan. 15. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968 at the age of 39.
The civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner is the first African American to have a national holiday and a memorial near the National Mall in the United States. Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) and former Senator Edward Brooke (R-MA) first introduced the bill for a national holiday four days after the assassination. The bill remained stagnant for years; but slowly, painfully and finally joyfully the bill gained fruition; with the Congressional Black Caucus first signing the bill. The bill also gained momentum in the 1970s with major urban cities first celebrating King’s birthday and singer Stevie Wonder playing a major role in making the holiday; giving speeches nationwide and making the now famous 1981 song “Happy Birthday.” The single was dedicated to King and appears on Wonder’s album “Hotter Than July.” The bill became a federal holiday on January 20, 1986 and is celebrated the third Monday in January.
Turner Classic Movies (TCM) this past Jan. 20 celebrated the day by presentations of TCM primary host and film historian Robert Osborne. The 24-hour segment that delivered movies with black actors or with a black theme was:
The Joe Louis Story (1953). Actor Coley Wallace played the heavyweight champion known as the “Brown Bomber.”
The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). The baseball legend who was the first African American in Major League Baseball (MLB) played himself in the film.
The Learning Tree (1969). An excellent story by director Gordon Parks (Shaft, 1971), the theme centers on a young man growing up in rural Kansas in the 1920s in a segregated setting. Actor Kyle Johnson plays the young man.
Sergeant Rutledge (1960). This story‘s plot is set in the 1880s. A white Calvary officer defends a black sergeant in his company accused of rape and murder of a white girl. Actor Woody Strode plays the sergeant accused.
Four pictures each which featured actors Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were shown. The four films with Sidney Poitier were Duel at Diablo (1966) and Buck and the Preacher (1972), both westerns; In the Heat of the Night (1967) which he played Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs coming to a racist Mississippi town, and Lilies of the Field (1963). Poitier plays a worker who helps a group of nuns build a chapel. The role earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor that year. In the Heat of the Night won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967.
The four films that highlighted Harry Belafonte were Bright Road (1953), The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), and The Angel Levine (1970). Bright Road was the first film appearance for Belafonte who played a principal in a rural African American school. The film also featured actress Dorothy Dandridge, who played the new teacher. Odds Against Tomorrow is regarded as a film noir about three men involved in a robbery. Belafonte is one of the men, while actors Robert Ryan (who is a racist) and Ed Begley are the other two.
Besides Belafonte’s acting talents, he is known for his singing style of calypso and has three Grammys to his credit, among other awards. He is also recognized as a social activist and is heavily involved in the civil rights movement. He and Dr. King were very close friends and Belafonte was responsible for Hollywood actors participating in the 1963 March on Washington.