On MLK Day, remember Sidney Poitier who used his star power to serve civil rights

‘I know as a fact that the courage of this man has made a better man of me’ – Sidney Poitier

“I am distressed at the way the game of politics is currently being played in too many arenas. And it pains me that we have woven our social fabric from such peculiar threads: turmoil and chaos, to name a few.”

The speaker was the late Sidney Poitier, who died at the age of 94 on Jan. 6. The occasion was his keynote address at a banquet in Atlanta celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on Aug. 14, 1967. Poitier was introduced by his friend, a founder and leader of the civil rights organization, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Poitier’s words from more than half a century ago — “the game of politics,” “turmoil and chaos” — are as apt for today, for Georgia, for America, for the world as they were then:

“… the philosophy of materialism by which men shape and conduct much of their lives seems to have become the principle force of all of their undertakings….Greed, selfishness, indifference to the suffering of others, corruption of our value system and a moral deterioration that has already scarred our souls irrevocably. On my bad days, I am guilty of suspecting there is a national death-wish within our borders. And on my worst days, the death-wish seems to be international, to say the least.”

Watching the coronavirus hospitalizations climb, outpaced only by new victims of the viral Big Lie spreading through social media, wondering whatever happened to decency, dignity, trust and courage as elected officials sit with their thumbs up their butts, pretending we aren’t on the lip of an authoritarian abyss on a slowly simmering planet, seeing the sick and the homeless on our city’s streets and the sick, starving and dying in the news around the globe — yeah, sounds like now. Sounds like a global death-wish to me, too.

Poitier, who seldom gave speeches, delivered this one during what would be his biggest year in Hollywood, as the star of three of 1967’s most popular films. Just a couple of weeks before that Atlanta banquet, he stunned (and in some quarters, thrilled) moviegoers when, as Detective Virgil Tibbs in “In the Heat of the Night,” he slapped a rich old Southern white man who had slapped him. Earlier in the year, he starred in “To Sir, with Love” as a dreamy high school teacher in a crappy London school. And that December, he would break another taboo (bitch-slapping a white dude being the first) by becoming engaged to a white San Franciscan in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” It was only in June of that year, in Loving v. Virginia, that the Supreme Court unanimously ruled laws prohibiting interracial marriages were unconstitutional.

The summer of 1967, Poitier’s career was on fire. But so were many American cities. It is rare for a season to have two famous nicknames: “the Summer of Love,” as it is known in San Francisco, the eye of the daisy in the free love daisy chain; and “the long, hot summer,” a reference to violent uprisings in more than 150 American cities, from Portland, Ore. to Tampa, Fla. High unemployment, police brutality, redlining, broken urban public schools, conditions fostered and fed by racism, fueled frustrations that spilled into American streets, often erupting in vandalism and fires that left some neighborhoods scarred for a generation.

During six days in Detroit that July, more than 40 people died, hundreds were injured and over 7,000 people were arrested after Governor George Romney called out the National Guard and President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the Army. By September, the national toll for “the long, hot summer” would include more than 80 deaths, thousands of injuries and tens of millions in damages. (This is the specter of fiery chaos Trump and Fox News try to summon when speaking of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations during the summer of 2020, despite verified data showing that 95% of those protests were peaceful.)

The harshness of Poitier’s assessment of the world — “we are perilously close to the point of no return” — is even more striking in contrast with the kinds of Black heroes he embodied in a string of films white Hollywood constructed to sell white Americans a fantasy of an “acceptable” Negro. In many memorial tributes to the first African American to win a Best Actor Academy Award (for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field” in which one of the most handsome men to ever grace a screen is surrounded by a bunch of German nuns — and not hotties in wimples like the ones played by Audrey Hepburn or Ingrid Bergman or Deborah Kerr in other nun films), critics note how “alone” Poitier is in most of his movies of that era: surrounded by white people and tasked with teaching them to tolerate one Very Special Negro. Despite Mr. Tibbs’ resounding slap, the typical Poitier character is a model of patience and forbearance, tall and cool in a suit, his smile splitting his face like a lighthouse beacon on a dark and stormy night.

In introducing Poitier that night, King mentioned that his friend was “a millionaire.” That might sound crass today, but at the time, it was a point of pride for Black Americans that one of us had made it that far. An even greater point of pride was the fact that Poitier gave back; although less visibly political than his best friend Harry Belafonte, he was no less engaged in the struggle. The two of them risked their lives to drive doctors’ bags full of cash into Mississippi to bail out jailed civil rights demonstrators during the Freedom Summer of 1964. The summer of 1963, Poitier joined Belafonte and a legion of liberal stars, including Charlton Heston (!) and Marlon Brando at the March on Washington.

Poitier and King became good friends through their work in the civil rights movement, although there are precious few photos in the public domain of the two of them together. They shared the distinction and the weight of being the two highest profile Black men in America in the 1960s. Throughout his keynote speech to the SCLC, Poitier refers to himself as an “old man.” This is surprising — even given different attitudes about age back then — when you realize that at the time, he was just 40, not even halfway through the very long life he would lead. Poitier lived long enough to see another tall, cool Black man in a slim suit captivate, confound and inspire all kinds of audiences as the first Black president of the United States. In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded Poitier the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of this nation’s highest civilian honors.

Speaking of King, who would be slain the following year at 39, Poitier says, “I know as a fact that the courage of this man has made a better man of me….You are truly a new man in an old world.”

Poitier himself embodied a “new man” in the “old world” of how Black people were depicted in the movies, the time’s most influential popular culture. In less than a decade, his model would be upended by actor Richard Roundtree and director Gordon Parks’ “Shaft,” a Black hero for Black audiences. By that time, Poitier had moved into directing, filling his films with Black stars and telling stories he wanted to tell.

In the wake of Poitier’s death and on the eve of our national holiday celebrating his friend Martin, it’s worth remembering the civil rights movement had many foot soldiers serving on many fronts. And that the struggle for racial justice and equity continues to this day.

That night in Atlanta, sharing a dais with King, Poitier concluded, “As an old man who has seen all the corners in this corrupt old world, who wants to change this corrupt old world, I have decided to start with myself.”

Amen to that.

Teresa Moore’s columns appear bimonthly in The Examiner.

The downturn persists

Examiner analysis reveals that San Francisco’s economy has a long road to recovery

It’s the Year of the S.F. Recall — but who pays and who benefits politically?

Recalls may become more frequent and contribute to political destabilization

Local startup raises billions of dollars to reverse the aging process

Fountain of Youth firm will start with mice, is Jeff Bezos next?