It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Jan. 17. It’s 1989 and I’ve just walked onto the set of my first television gig, ‘China Beach.’ We’re on Stage 9 at the Warner Brothers Studios lot, halfway through season two of the critically adored Vietnam series. I’m wearing a heavy black wool turtleneck sweater under my army fatigues; my hair is cut in a flat top, ‘jarhead’-style.
I’m hot, I’m black and I’m angry. My friend and co-star Nancy Giles and I are the only African-American people on the set. At times like these it feels like we may be the only black people on the planet. Several of my white co-stars have just stopped whatever they were doing to turn and stare … at me, respectfully, warily, as if waiting for me to sprout wings or say something meaningful: It’s King Day, remember. Boatman’s black; he must be feeling something, I feel them thinking. My response is automatic — “What’s everybody looking at?”
My co-stars look at me with compassion and turn away knowingly: “Must be a black thing.” I have grown to love these people; our show is a hit and I just bought a house. But right now they’re making feel like The Black Guy and it’s getting on my nerves. See, it’s not actually Martin Luther King Day; we’re just about to shoot a very emotional scene in the episode entitled ‘Promised Land.’ The episode chronicles the reactions of my character, Sam Beckett and the reactions of the other characters at the China Beach medical unit in the immediate aftermath of King’s assassination. The script is brilliant, filled with tense scenes and lots of mistrust and racial discord. Relationships are threatened; the status quo is temporarily up for grabs. My character, Beckett, is despondent and bereaved; angry at his white co-workers. They just don’t seem to get it. And now, in real life, all my colleagues are looking at me with that awkward expectation, as if through me, they might understand something from the “Black Perspective” about these long-ago events.
The problem is … I don’t understand them myself.
And so I’m uncomfortable, and bothered by a single burning question that plagues me long after filming was done for the day: What am I missing here? I mean, I’m an American, right? You guys accept me and realize that I’m just me … right? But in all honesty, I was relieved when that episode wrapped and we moved on to the next one. The pressure was off. I could go back to being just Michael. Not the Black Actor. But I was still left with that nagging certainty that I was missing something. I didn’t understand the power and the import of King’s legacy then. I, like many others, was merely the beneficiary of it. He was a hero. I got that. He died for a cause bigger than himself. Check. He was a good man who fought for a dream and never lived to see its fruition. Okay. But why did it seem less like something that directly affected my life and more like … history?
Twenty-two years later … I get it. I’m older, more seasoned, and arguably just a little wiser. I understand the world and its joys and its dangers, certainly more than that 23-year-old young actor ever could. More importantly, I’m a husband, and a father. The impact of King’s legacy struck home to me sometime soon after the birth of my first child. When I suddenly realized that my life wasn’t just about me anymore. King was also a husband, and a father, the spiritual leader of millions of weary, frightened and hopeful human beings. Unlike me at 23, he understood the potential consequences of dreams. He knew what he had to lose by standing up for what he knew was right and he did it anyway. With an adult’s full knowledge that he could be murdered, his home and family destroyed, he pressed forward against a stiffening wind of hatred, buoyed by a rising tide of expanding consciousness. Sometimes I wonder if he ever felt as if he had a choice. He could have stepped down, taken his family and faded into anonymity; let another charismatic preacher meet the firestorm he surely sensed building just over the horizon. He could have retired into ministry. He could have written books. (He was a brilliant writer.) He could have moved into academia. King had done more to propel the Civil Rights movement than anyone else. He could have stepped aside and lived the life he so richly deserved.
But he didn’t.
His courage humbles me today. I don’t know any cause other than the lives and safety of my wife and children that would inspire me to lay down my life. In fact, it’s because of them I find King’s courage even more daunting: How could he move forward knowing that in doing so, he would probably lose everything? I feel passionately about many issues — the environment, animal cruelty, man’s enduring inhumanity to man — but how far would I be willing to go to defend my beliefs? When threatened with death, lynching and the possible murder of my family, as Martin Luther King was, how far would I continue before packing it in, pulling up stakes and changing direction? Part of me hopes that, if faced with such choices, I would have his courage. Another part of me knows that my family, my children, are the most important part of my life, and that I could never leave them of my own free will. But King obviously felt the same way about his family … and he moved forward, inspiring the minds and hearts of the world with visions of a promised land, a better place that, with courage and simple human compassion, awaited every one of us just over the horizon. He gently pointed the way to that better future in the face of certain death, knowing that he would never live to set foot there.
Recently, while watching ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movies, I was struck by the scenes where the characters encounter those massive, ancient statues; gigantic human figures, carved in marble and dedicated to long dead titans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s bygone Middle Earth. Watching those eerie scenes, I wondered, “To whom would we build such monuments today?” I remember the Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson monuments, the Vietnam Memorial and all the memorial works in Washington D.C., and I answer the question easily: I would build a mile-high statue to Martin Luther King, Jr., because his accomplishments still resonate today, his legacy unfolding all around us, pointing us toward an unknowable, but hopefully better future.
Like Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson, King’s vision of a better America actually helped create a better America; an America filled with problems, yes, but also one filled with promise, with equality — what America was supposed to be all about. And if anyone out there looks at the state of current events and believes that America’s Jim Crow/Post Slavery past was some kind of golden era, my stock answer is that it was only ‘Golden’ for a select few, and nearly everybody else — blacks, Native Americans, minorities, women — got the brass. Yes, there are many dragons still to be slain, and most of them wear the face of corporate hegemony rather than a white hood, but the idea that one courageous man could inspire courage in so many to stand up for our shared humanity even while his own was constantly assaulted and ultimately stolen is, at the core, what makes King’s legacy so enduring. He touched a deep place in the communal consciousness. Using non-violence, compassion and his understanding of the true nature of the human spirit, he overcame centuries of institutionalized hatred and elevated the world’s conscience.
King was mortal, a man with strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. He loved his wife, and adored his children as much as I love mine. Yet he stood upon the world stage and willingly sacrificed all of it, for the simple, complex hope that his descendants, and yours and mine, might live in that Promised Land to which we all aspire: an America, and a world, where men and women and children are truly created equal. When I was 23 years old, single and immortal, I didn’t understand King’s greatest legacy. I didn’t understand how a man could give up one kind of dream for the hope of a better one he would never live to see. I know better now. As the years year go by and the world gets better and worse, I finally get it. I’m building that statue higher every day. His greatest legacy was the vision he exemplified.
And the courage to believe compassion could change the world.