I HAVE A DREAM

Tomorrow, January 15, is the birthday of, in my mind, the greatest civil rights leader in American history.  Of course, I am referring to Martin Luther King, Jr.  His birthday is a national holiday, and as is the case with many of our holidays, we celebrate it on a Monday, in this case the third one in January, rather than on the actual day. This year, it will be celebrated on Monday, January 17.

This year will mark the 54th anniversary of his untimely assassination on April 4, 1968.  Like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the assassination of President JFK on November 22, 1963 most of us will always remember where we were when we heard the horrible news.

For some people, the holiday holds no special meaning; it is just a day off from work, a day to spend with family or friends, part of a long three-day weekend.  For many of us, however, particularly those of us who were alive in the 1950s and 1960s, it is much, much more.

MLK was born on January 15, 1929.  In my opinion, he became the most prominent and influential American civil rights leader in the 1950s and 1960s, if not ever.  MLK was more than just a pastor.  He believed that more advancement in civil rights could be achieved by civil disobedience and non-violence than by violence.  He preached peaceful disobedience, sit-ins, marches and demonstrations, often in the face of wanton violence and cruelty by the police and others, rather than by rioting.  In this regard, he was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi.  In turn, he inspired many others such as Nelson Mandela and the Black Civil Rights movement in South Africa.

He also recognized the power of the press to bring attention to his cause and influence public opinion. For example, as many as 70 million people around the world witnessed the police brutality inflicted on the peaceful black and white marchers in Selma, Alabama, in March of 1965, including women and children as well as men.  Those images, broadcast live on TV and radio, appalled and disgusted many people and provided an immeasurable boost to the public awareness of the injustices being visited upon blacks in the South. These events were captured dramatically and realistically in the 2014 movie, “Selma,” which featured David Oyelowo as MLK.  If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it.

Unlike any other African American leaders before or since, he had the ability to unite, rather than divide.  Although he was criticized by some of the more militant civil rights leaders of the time, such as Stokely Carmichael, he commanded the support and respect of a large majority of blacks and many whites as well. In that regard, he was similar to Mandela.

After his death, despite the urgings of some civil rights leaders who wanted to continue MLK’s philosophy, more militant African American leaders, such as Mr. Carmichael, came into prominence. There was rioting in over 100 US cities, and a slew of violent incidents at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago in front of the national press and millions of Americans, which many believe swung the 1968 presidential election to Richard Nixon. The Civil Rights movement was changed forever.

MLK came into prominence in 1955 when he led a bus boycott, peacefully, in Montgomery, Alabama.  The boycott had been fueled by the famous Rosa Parks incident in which she had refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person.  She was arrested on December 1. (Most people don’t know that earlier that year in March a similar incident had occurred, also in Montgomery, involving Claudette Colvin, a black girl who had also refused to give up her seat to a white man.  However, that case did not receive the same notoriety.  Civil rights lawyers declined to pursue it because Colvin was 15, unmarried and pregnant. They chose to wait for a case with a more favorable fact pattern, and they were proven to be right.)

Later, MLK became the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and remained so until his death. He applied his non-violence philosophy to protests in Selma, Ala., St. Augustine, FL, and the March on Washington, D. C., among others. He made it a policy never to endorse a particular political party or candidate. He believed he could be more effective if he were neutral and not beholden to anyone.  Furthermore, in his view, neither party was all bad, and neither one was perfect.  In his words, “[t]hey both have weaknesses.”

Perhaps, MLK’s signature moment occurred during the famous March on Washington in August 1963.  Ironically, MLK was not the primary organizer of the March.  That was Bayard Rustin, a colleague.  The primary purpose of the March was to dramatize the plight of blacks in the South.  Civil rights leaders, including Roy Wilkins, NAACP, Whitney Young, National Urban League, A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, John Lewis, SNCC, James Farmer CORE, and MLK, wanted to bring awareness of these issues right to the seat of the Federal government.  More than 250,000 people of all ethnicities and colors attended.  MLK was one of several speakers, and he only spoke for 17 minutes.  But, his “I Have a Dream” speech became one of the most famous speeches ever.  The March, in general, and MLK’s speech, in particular, are credited with bringing civil rights to the political forefront and facilitating the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Some little-known facts about MLK:

1. His birth name was Michael King, Jr., after his father.  In 1931 his father changed his own name to Martin Luther King, after the German theologian, Martin Luther, whom he admired.  At the same time, he changed his son’s name.

2. In 1958 MLK was stabbed in the chest after a speech by a woman who had been stalking him, and he nearly died.

3. The FBI began tapping MLK’s telephone as early as 1963.  Robert Kennedy, who was Attorney General at the time and who is viewed as a staunch supporter of civil rights, in general, and MLK, in particular, authorized the tapping.

4. MLK won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 at the age of 35, the youngest age ever at the time.

5. MLK won a Grammy Award in 1971, posthumously.  It should be noted that he won it, not because he displayed a great singing voice, but for a “Spoken Word Album,” “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.”  In addition, he won countless other awards and was awarded some 50 honorary degrees from various colleges and universities.

6. Even though MLK was one of the great public speakers of his time, inexplicably, he got a “C” in a public speaking course at the seminary.  (Kind of like a baseball scout saying Babe Ruth can hit “a little bit.”)

7. MLK is one of three individuals and the only native-born American to have a holiday named after him.  In case you’re wondering, the others are George Washington (born in the COLONY of Virginia), and Christopher Columbus.

Some MLK quotes to ponder:

1. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
2. “The time is always right to do what is right.”
3. “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
4. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
5. “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”
6. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

CONCLUSION

Today, there is much division among African Americans as well as their leaders.  Some are moderate and want to work within the system; others are more militant.  Many of the leaders have their own agendas and look for any excuse to foment distrust and discord.  If you doubt me, just randomly turn on CNN or MSNBC and listen to some of the news coverage. The coverage and commentary of some of the guest commentators (and a few of the news anchors as well) are subjective and divisive. I believe that these “race hustlers,” and we all know who they are, do more harm than good, but that is a subject for another blog.

In my opinion, we have made much progress in the area of civil rights.  For example, we have elected an African American president (twice) and vice president; an African American sits on the Supreme Court; and African Americans hold and have held positions of prominence in every field of endeavor, including business, entertainment, sports, and the military.  But, still, it is a work in progress.  We can do more.

One can speculate whether and to what extent MLK’s assassination changed the course of history.  In my opinion, had MLK lived, the Civil Rights Movement would have been considerably different over the last 50 years, more peaceful and less divisive, with better results.  Furthermore, his assassination had a significant impact, not only on the history of the civil rights movement, but also on the overall history of the country, itself.  I hope and believe that eventually a moderate leader will emerge and bridge the gap as MLK did half a century ago.

Finally, I firmly believe that MLK would have been appalled by the violent, arbitrary and senseless rioting and sharp uptick in crime of the past few years that was instigated, aided, and abetted by BLM, ANTIFA, many Dem political leaders and much of the media.  I find this to be senseless and ironic since most of the victims are themselves poor minorities. How is that helping the civil rights movement?  That is not what MLK stood for.  Furthermore, in my view, he would not have been an exponent of the extreme “cancel culture,” “critical race theory,” and “political correctness” movements that many see as dividing the country today. .

So, as you enjoy the holiday in whatever manner you choose, I ask you to reflect for a moment on where we are as a nation regarding civil rights, where we want to go and how we get there.

SIDNEY POITIER

He was renowned as a superb actor and director. More than that, he was a pioneer for persons of color in the entertainment business. Over a 71 year career he played many ground-breaking roles in many ground-breaking movies and won numerous awards. In fact, as you will see below, one might say that, especially early in his career, he was the go-to actor of color for those types of roles in those types, of movies.

Sidney L. Poitier was born on February 20, 1927 in Miami, FL. At the time, his entire extended family was living in the Bahamas. His parents were tomato farmers on Cat Island, which is located in the central Bahamas. Through happenstance, they were in Miami on business when Sidney was born unexpectedly two months prematurely. So, literally through an accident of birth, he was an American citizen. At that time, medicine was not as advanced as it is now. Therefore, many, if not most, babies born prematurely did not survive, and for a while it was doubtful that Sidney would. He remained in the Miami hospital for three months, until he was healthy enough to go home.

He was the youngest of seven children. The origin of the family surname is interesting. According to family legend an ancestral branch of the Poitiers were runaway slaves who fled from Haiti to Cat Island. There they joined a “maroon” community. Such communities were not uncommon in the region. The name was used to describe runaway slaves who had fled to remote Bahamian islands and established independent communities. Often, they intermarried with indigenous peoples. The name is derived from the Spanish word, “cimarron,” which means “fierce” or “unruly.” There was a white planter on Cat Island named Charles Leonard Poitier,” so he was likely the source of the family name.

When Sidney was 10 the family moved to Nassau. He lived there until the age of 15 when he was sent to live in Miami with a brother. At age 16 he moved to New York. He held down a series of menial jobs, such as dishwasher, until 1943 when he lied about his age and enlisted in the Army. He was assigned to work with psychiatric patients, but he became disenchanted with how the Army treated them. Consequently, he faked mental illness and managed to obtain a Section VIII discharge.

Back in NY Sidney determined to be an actor. In order to hone his craft he joined the American Negro Theatre. Like most every other aspiring entertainer he struggled for a while. At that time, due to stereotyping, producers expected Black actors to be able to sing and dance. Sidney was “tone deaf,” and could do neither, which hindered his career for a while.

Sidney’s first break came in 1950. Darryl Zanuck cast him in the movie No Way Out as a doctor who treats a Caucasian bigot (played by another up-and-comer named Richard Widmark). After a series of nondescript roles he got another big break in 1955 as a troubled teen in Blackboard Jungle starring Glen Ford. (At the time Poitier, at 28, was a bit old for the role, but he pulled it off.) Ironically, in 1967 in one of his most successful and memorable roles he would play a teacher of incorrigible children in To Sir with Love.

In my view, in Poitier’s long and storied career the following roles and productions stand out:

  1. The aforementioned Blackboard Jungle and To Sir with Love, which highlighted the racial and social struggles of poor, troubled, disadvantaged teens living in London to find their place in the world. I thought it was cool that Poitier’s roles in the two movies were mirror-images of each other.
  2. The Defiant Ones in which two escaped prisoners, a Caucasian (Tony Curtis) who hated Blacks and a Black (Poitier) who hated Caucasians, were chained to each other and had to work in concert to survive. This was a really controversial topic for 1958 when the movie was released. The movie was a critical and commercial success and earned eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for both stars. Poitier became the first Black male actor to be so recognized.
  3. In 1959 Poitier starred with Ruby Dee on Broadway in the groundbreaking play, Raisin in the Sun. The play depicted how Blacks lived, which was a revelation to the predominantly white Broadway audiences. Director Lloyd Richards observed that Raisin was the “first play to which large numbers of Black people were drawn.” In 1961 Poitier starred in the film adaptation and earned a Golden Globe nomination.
  4. In the words of the Frank Sinatra “hit” song 1967 was a “very good year” for Poitier. At that time he was the lone actor of African descent who was being cast in leading roles in the movies. He starred in, not one, not two, but three commercially and critically successful movies – the aforementioned To Sir with Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night. In Dinner Poitier played a Black man in a relationship with a white woman, a very touchy subject in 1967. In 1967 interracial marriages were still illegal in many Southern states. At the time, film critic, Roger Ebert praised Poitier’s depiction of Dr. Prentice as “noble, rich, intelligent, handsome, and ethical.” In Heat Poitier played a Black policeman from Philadelphia who helps solve a murder while dealing the racial prejudices of the deep South, including a racist cop played by Rod Steiger. Due to the rousing success of these three movies in 1967 Poitier was the number one box office draw. It was the commercial peak of his career.

CONCLUSION

In addition to his acting career Poitier was a successful director and author. His most successful film as a director was the comedy Stir Crazy starring Richard Prior and Gene Wilder. For many years Crazy was the highest-grossing film to have been directed by a person of African descent.

As I said, Sidney ‘s enduring legacy is that he broke barriers. In many of his movies he played roles that had been considered taboo for Black actors. He was drawn to roles that dealt with race and social justice. These were often controversial, but movie audiences accepted him in those roles. He played his roles with grace and dignity.

He was the first AA to be nominated for an Oscar and to win an Oscar. In fact, his whole career was marked by a series of “firsts.” He was an inspiration to and a trail blazer for the legion of other actors of color who would follow in his footsteps, such as Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Will Smith, among many others. When Denzel won the award for Best Actor he paid special tribute to Sidney saying “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There is nothing I would rather do, sir.” I think that says it all, but if you want more, how about these samples of the many testimonials that poured in following Sidney’s passing:

  1. Chester Cooper – Bahamas Deputy Prime Minister – “We have lost an icon, a hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure.”
  2. Joe Biden called him a “once in a generation actor and advocate whose work carried so much dignity power and grace that it changed the world on and off the big screen.”

He won many awards including Oscars, Golden Globes and a Grammy, too many to list them all here. In 1974 he was “knighted” by Queen Elizabeth II. In 1999 he was ranked #23 on the American Film Institute’s list of “100 Years…100 Stars.” In 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Poitier’s personal life did not exactly measure up to his professional one. He was married twice and had six children. However, during his first marriage he carried on a nine-year affair with actress Diahann Carroll.

Sidney Poitier passed away on January 6, 2022. Rest in peace, Sidney. You entertained us for 71 years with grace and dignity, and you were an inspiration to those of your race who will follow in your huge footsteps.

BETTY WHITE

She was often referred to as “The First Lady of Television” and the “First Lady of Game Shows.” She was best known for her comedic acting, but, in actuality, she did everything as you will see below. As columnist Johnny Oleksinski wrote in Newsday, “It is impossible to name a more beloved celebrity than Betty White. … [She exhibited] “a rare cross-generational appeal.” I would like to echo those sentiments and add that I never heard a derogatory comment or story about Betty White, which is very rare in the entertainment field.

She was one of the pioneers of television. She debuted in 1939 before there even was tv, officially, and she entertained us for more than eight decades, longer than any other performer in history. She won eight Emmys in various categories, three American Comedy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and, for good measure, a Grammy. In addition, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is in the Television Hall of Fame. Not bad for someone who was told by studio executives and talent scouts that she “was not photogenic enough” to be on tv.

Betty Marion White was born on January 17, 1922 in Oak Park, IL. Her father was a lighting company executive, and her mother was a homemaker. She had no siblings. In case you’re wondering “Betty” was her legal name. It was not short for “Elizabeth” or any other name.

The family moved to LA when Betty was a youngster. She attended Beverly Hills High School, graduating in 1939. As a youngster, she developed a strong interest in wildlife, and she determined to be a forest ranger. Alas, she was denied because no women were allowed. She then turned to the entertainment business. If not for that rejection how different things could have been.

Due to the extraordinary length and variety of Betty’s entertainment career I will only present the highlights:

  1. In 1939 at the age of 17 she starred in a high school graduation play that she had written, and a month out of high school she appeared in her first tv production titled The Merry Widow. This was months before tv was to be formally introduced to the public as a brand new entertainment medium at the World’s Fair in NY, and the tv industry did not even exist, officially.
  2. During WWII Betty volunteered with the American Women’s Voluntary Services. One of her assignments was to drive a PX truck carrying military supplies. It was during this time that she met her first husband, Dick Barker, an Army Air Force pilot. After the war ended Barker wanted to return to his native rural Ohio where he owned and managed a chicken farm. Can you imagine Betty as a small-town chicken farmer? Needless to say, she rejected that idea, they soon divorced and Betty returned to the bright lights of Hollywood.
  3. After being rejected for tv as not being sufficiently photogenic Betty turned to radio. Like all aspiring entertainers she took whatever she could get. Among her jobs were reading commercials, playing bit parts and even providing “crowd noises.”
  4. Betty’s first substantial role in 1949 was as co-host on the daytime talk show Hollywood on Television. Later, she became the host.
  5. In 1954, while hosting her own daily talk/variety show, which she had also produced and over which she had full creative control, she made history. Firstly, she hired a female director. Secondly, she featured an African American tap dancer, Arthur Duncan. This became problematic when the show went national. Some Southern affiliates objected to Duncan and threatened to boycott the show unless he was removed. In a lesson that could be applied to today’s “cancel culture” Betty refused to cave in to their racist demands. She famously told the affiliates: “I’m sorry. Live with it.” Furthermore, she expanded Duncan’s role on the show.
  6. In the 1950s Betty met Lucille Ball. They bonded over a common interest – women competing and succeeding in the male-dominated tv business of the day and became lifelong friends
  7. Beginning in the 1960s Betty became a staple on network game shows and talk shows. She appeared frequently on all the familiar and successful shows of the era, including, among others, The Tonight Show with both Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, To Tell the Truth, What’s My Line, Match Game, and most significantly Password. It was on the latter show that she met the love of her life, Allen Ludden. They married and stayed together until his death in 1981.
  8. NBC offered her the anchor spot on the Today Show. She declined because she did not want to move to NY where the show was to be produced. Eventually, NBC hired Barbara Walters.
  9. Beginning in 1973 Betty’s career took a significant leap when she began appearing on the Mary Tyler Show as the “man-hungry” Sue Ann Nivens, a character Betty described as “icky sweet.” It became one of her signature rolls. The show was immensely popular, and it introduced Betty to a new audience. During this time she continued to guest-star on various comedy and variety shows and tv movies and miniseries.
  10. In 1983 Betty broke new ground once again by becoming the first female to win a Daytime Emmy in the category of Outstanding Game Show Host for the show Just Men.
  11. In 1985 Betty landed the second signature roll of her career starring with Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty and Rue McClanahan in the Golden Girls. GG was very popular, but Betty had a rather strained relationship with Arthur. Betty lamented that Arthur “was not that fond of me” an understatement. But being professionals, the two performers worked through it.
  12. In 2009 Betty’s career took another turn when she began appearing in Snickers bar commercials. Pleasant, friendly Betty appeared with irascible, tough guy Abe Vigoda. The tag line was “you’re not you when you’re hungry.” Mean Vigoda would take a bite of a Snickers and morph into pleasant Betty.
  13. In 2010 the USDA Forest Service made Betty an honorary forest ranger. This was a nice gesture, “righting” a 70+ years’ “wrong.”
  14. In 2012 Betty won a Grammy not for singing but for the “spoken word” recording of her book, If You Ask Me.
  15. In addition to her career interests Betty was a big supporter of LGBT rights and animal welfare. She opined that “there are gay relationships that are more solid than some heterosexual ones.” Her attitude was “mind your own business, take care of your own affairs and don’t worry about other people so much.” Good advice that one can apply to today’s “woke” crowd.

CONCLUSION

Betty passed away peacefully on December 31. at her home in the Brentwood section of LA. As I write this no cause of death had been disclosed. Close friend Jeff Witjas told the media she had “no diagnosed illness.”

Tributes poured in. President Biden described her as a “lovely lady and “a cultural icon who will be sorely missed.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Former First Lady Michelle Obama added “she broke barriers, defied expectations, served her country, and pushed us all to laugh.”

A massive celebration titled “Betty White: 100 Years Young – A Birthday Celebration” had been planned in celebration of her 100th birthday on January 17. Numerous “A-Listers,” such as Ryan Reynolds, Tina Fey, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, and Jimmy Kimmel are scheduled to participate. Despite Betty’s untimely death the event’s organizers have stated the “show will go on.” I, for one, can’t wait to see it.