January 19, 2022

In the Urgency of the Moment: Sidney Poitier and Martin Luther King Jr.

By Stuart Mitchner

“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”

—Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

“With knowledge you can grasp tight a belief: that you  can be better, that the world can be better. With that, you can claim hope.”

—Sidney Poitier (1927-2022)

Accompanying NPR’s complete transcript of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a photograph showing King inside the Lincoln Memorial with a dozen unidentified men that the caption describes as “civil rights leaders.” The group posed at the base of the statue present a mélange of facial expressions frozen in the moment, some appropriately somber and pensive, others abstracted, edgy, uncomfortable. The most relaxed person in the picture would seem to be King himself. The sternest, strangest expression, however, is Abraham Lincoln’s. Probably I’m reading the troubles of the present day into that gaze, but in King’s birthday week, January 2022, it’s as if Lincoln were staring past the “dream” into the “urgency of the moment.”

Poitier and King

Martin Luther King Jr. was 34 in the photograph taken at the memorial on August 28, 1963. At around the same age, Sidney Poitier was coming into his own as an actor. I’ve been reading his book, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (HarperSanFrancisco 2000) and watching film clips on the time machine jukebox of YouTube. I’d forgotten the power of his presence, his extraordinary intensity. Hauled into the office of the small town sheriff played by Rod Steiger in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, he commands the scene simply by standing there staring while Steiger outdoes himself performing a Method actor bigot. The Black Philadelphia homicide cop Virgil Tibbs regards this performative display as if Steiger were auditioning for a part in Poitier’s film. Made four years after the “I Have a Dream” speech, Heat of the Night won the Best Picture Oscar at the 1968 Academy Awards, with Steiger winning the award for Best Actor (Poitier had won the Best Actor Oscar in 1963 for Lilies of the Field). The awards ceremony had to be moved to April 10, 1968 from April 8, the day King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.


In Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, where Tony Curtis achieves a 3 on an intensity scale of 1 to 10, Poitier hits 10 without breaking a sweat. No wonder: it’s 1958 and he’s the embodiment of the great unsolvable American issue while Curtis is intent on suppressing an accent widely remarked a few years later in Spartacus when he tells Kirk Douglas, “I wants ta be witcha spahticuss.”

The last scene of The Defiant Ones has Noah, the convict played by Poitier, hauling himself aboard a fast-moving freight train, while Joker, the convict played by Curtis, is running alongside, reaching for Noah’s extended hand; it’s their last chance to escape the posse, black hand grasping white hand for a fraction of a second before Joker tumbles down the steep grade, and then, out of some instinct beyond empathy or friendship, Noah chooses to tumble down after him. It’s the primal image of all the buddy-movie endings before and after, two men sharing a cigarette, waiting for whatever comes next. Although Hollywood takes the scene over the top, with Poitier singing and Curtis collapsing exhausted in his arms, in “real life” you know nobody’s living happily ever after.

Where’s the Payback?

In Measure of a Man, Poitier mentions “a small but highly vocal subset” of viewers who thought his character should have stayed on the train and let the white guy “suffer his fate.” Black and progressive members of “the Hollywood community” weren’t ready for “oneness”; they wanted some “payback.” Yet these same people claimed to love the film. How can you love a creative enterprise where everything that makes it worth watching is invested in the positive turn it takes at the end? The actors and director and everyone else involved earned that ending and its message, which goes beyond race to character, with both men realizing, as Poitier expresses it, “There’s much about you that is me, and there’s much about me that is you, and I’m comfortable with that.”

The Long Walk

You could say Sidney Poitier was born twice in Miami, first on February 20, 1927, when he arrived a month ahead of schedule as his Bahamian parents were visiting the city; something comparable to a second birth occured when he was picked up by a patrol car in a white neighborhood. Having spent the first 10 years of his life on Cat Island in the Bahamas, with sand and sea and no paved roads, no telephones, no racial dynamic, and the next five years in Nassau, his “first exposure to the myriad risks that lay outside the natural world,” nothing had prepared the teenager for Jim Crow Miami, where “this strange new society started coming at me with point-blank force to hammer home its long-established, non-negotiable position on the color of skin.”

The day he was caught in the white neighborhood, Poitier was told he’d be let go only if he walked all the way to “colored town,” a distance of 50 blocks. If he looked back at any time during that walk of shame, he was told he’d be shot. The patrol car followed him the whole way. He never looked back, and the long walk became a lesson in self-control for the future actor. As Poitier puts it in Measure of a Man, “Fifty blocks is a long time to think about what’s happening to you, to stew in the insane injustice of it all. But it’s also a good long time to internalize messages such as discipline, independence, the value of character, and toughness of mind.”

Poitier Slaps Back

Poitier cites the incident when discussing the scene in Heat of the Night in which a local businessman named Endicott slaps police detective Tibbs in the face when Tibbs presumes to ask him where he was the night of a murder. The original screenplay had Poitier looking at the man with disdain, and then walking out. At Poitier’s insistence, Tibbs responds “without a nanosecond of hesitation,” whacking Endicott “right across the face with a backhand slap.”

In a People magazine interview after Poitier’s death, director Norman Jewison pointed out the scene’s impact on former South African president Nelson Mandela, who reportedly became interested in the film “after the slap was censored in his country.”

The Last Speech

In the speech he delivered at the Mason Temple in Memphis the night before the day he died, King imagined taking a “mental flight” across the Red Sea “through the wilderness on toward the promised land” to Greece and Mount Olympus, the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, then to Wittenberg and Martin Luther, to Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and to the 20th century, and “the bankruptcy of the nation.”

There’s music in that last speech about the mountaintop and the promised land and “not fearing any man.” At his most inspired and inspirational, King was a great singer. If you stand in the corridor outside Room 306 at the former Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, you’ll hear the recorded voice of Mahalia Jackson singing, among other things, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” the spiritual he asked to be performed on what proved to be the last night of his life.

Listen to the Man

The NPR transcript of the March on Washington speech looks pretty ordinary on the page. Even the “I have a dream” passage, with “the red hills of Georgia,” the sons of slaves and slave owners sitting down together “at the table of brotherhood,” and the state of Mississippi, “sweltering with the heat of injustice,” transformed “into an oasis of freedom,” and the dream that his 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.” In January 2022, it’s hurts to read the sentence about the transformation of “the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

Still, you have to listen to the man, feel him letting the language roll with that vibrant undaunted voice that never fails to transcend the rhetoric and the occasion, warming you even as it chills you, even though you know one side of the Senate and the nation will look the other way, cover their ears and eyes, and walk out of the room and the urgency of the moment.