When “Gone With the Wind” made its cinematic debut, Mayor William Hartsfield prevailed in having the illustrious premier unfold in his city of Atlanta. All the stars were there: Clark Cable, Vivien Leigh, legendary director Victor Fleming, and author of the book upon which the film was based, Margaret Mitchell.
Conspicuously absent were other actors from the picture. Hattie McDaniel, whose portrayal of “Mammy” earned her the first Academy Award for an African American performer, was not there; neither was Butterfly McQueen, the precocious “Prissy.” No black actors or actresses from “Gone With the Wind” were allowed at the debut, as it was held at a “whites-only” theater.
This was the “wisest policy,” said a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive responsible for the film’s unveiling, as Hollywood did not wish to offend Atlantans on the “delicate issue” of race. Offended they were not, and thousands of Atlantans turned out to participate in the spectacle. There were parades, costume parties all over the city, and men dressed as Confederate soldiers marching in the streets.
Among the festivities was a ball hosted by the Junior League. Again, only whites were permitted, that is except for performers who reinforced the Antebellum storyline. Thus, the ball’s attendees were entertained by an African American boys choir from Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. These youngsters, dressed as slaves, sang for the crowd while standing in front of a mock plantation.
One of the boys in that choir was Martin Luther King, Jr., one month short of his tenth birthday. This humble child, born into the Jim Crow South, subjected to segregation, deprived of opportunity, and standing before a white crowd as a pawn in a racist game, would one day accept the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent leadership of the Civil Rights movement.
When Dr. King, whose birthday we celebrate once again, accepted his honor, he said: “Sooner or later all people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace…If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
King did not live to hear that final word, but I find it incredibly ironic – and encouraging – that as King stood singing on that stage 75 years removed from the Civil War, somewhere in this world a child is standing on a stage 75 years removed from World War 2, the Holocaust, and from the advent of atomic weapons. That child may in fact change the world in a way similar to King.
And if so, may it be just as MLK said, “When the blazing light of truth is focused on this age, people will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization – because humble children of God were willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake.”