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Tyler Perry Reflects on MLK's Legacy

50 years after the civil rights leader’s death, he talks about push to keep moving forward

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King

AFP/Getty Images

Civil rights leader Martin Luther KIng speaks from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

I have vivid memories from my childhood of my great-grandfather Papa Rod, who was the son of slaves, resting on his bed under a pile of my Aunt Mae’s handmade quilts in the living room of her rural Louisiana home. Above him, nailed to the cracked wall, were three ceramic plates with images of our family’s heroes: John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One morning I remember pointing to the MLK plate and asking Mamma: “Who is he? Who is that man?” With tears in her eyes and a voice of solemn reverence, she told me: “Son, that’s Martin Luther King Jr. He was a very special man.” I recall my mother was still so overcome with grief over Dr. King’s tragic death a few years earlier that she had a hard time speaking more than a sentence or two about him before choking up.

After I started school, I learned more about this great man’s contributions. I was taught that he inspired people to believe in their dreams of freedom and achievement, and to know that equality is everyone’s human right. I also learned that he stood for nonviolent strength. Since I was growing up in a home full of emotional and physical brutality, it fascinated me to think that someone could actually change the world without using violence.

Those lessons went deep. When I was in my early 20s, I moved to Atlanta. Often, I would find myself driving up and down a street called Paces Ferry Road and dreaming of owning a home on it. Paces Ferry was dotted with regal mansions, enormous oak trees and elaborately landscaped gardens. It’s still the Beverly Hills of Atlanta, but back then the neighborhood was a long way from the life I was leading, both literally and figuratively. During that dismal time, there were nights when I was homeless and broke, and had to sleep in my car. Yet no matter how tough life was then, I would tell myself, One day I’ll do well enough to live here. I would dream … and dream … and dream.

There were some who tried to stop me from dreaming. But throughout my life, Martin Luther King Jr.’s example stood on the side of inspiration. His commitment to equality, kindness and love remained a powerful lesson for me.

Tyler Perry

Courtesy Tyler Perry

Tyler Perry says Dr. King's words feed the desire to reach out to others and help lift them higher.

Over a decade later, I returned to Paces Ferry Road. In 2005, when I was looking to purchase a piece of property, a real estate agent brought me up to a rusty iron gate. The house was so far off the road, and so covered with wildly overgrown trees and twisted shrubbery, that I couldn’t see the structure. She asked if I wanted to walk through the gate and check it out. My first reaction was, “No. It just doesn’t feel right.” It wasn’t the dilapidation that put me off; it was more like a sensation that I wasn’t welcome. But a few days later, after overcoming my initial response, I decided to buy the place. I had a plan to tear it down and build a new house.

Several months later, after the purchase was in progress, an Atlanta sheriff served a summons against me, brought by Moreton Rolleston Jr., an infamous Atlanta attorney. Rolleston not only previously owned a downtown motel ironically called Heart of Atlanta, but also at one time owned the Paces Ferry land where I was planning to build my dream home. Even though Rolleston had lost the property in a malpractice suit, he claimed otherwise. When I showed up in court, Rolleston took a long look at me. I watched as the blood drained from his face. At first I didn’t understand his shocked reaction, though I would soon learn that he owned several properties in the area and all the deeds contained a provision stating they couldn’t be sold to African Americans or Jews.

When I heard this, I was taken aback. Rolleston believed so defiantly in his right to discriminate against African Americans that, years earlier, he had argued the merits of segregation all the way to the Supreme Court.

The judge in my case decided in my favor. There was a sort of poetic justice in his ruling. Here I was, purchasing a property that was once owned by a staunch segregationist. My mother was so proud when I told her this.

One evening I was sharing this story with guests at my Atlanta home (built on the very same Paces Ferry property). One of my guests was the civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis. With an emotional voice, Lewis told me, “I knew that man. I was one of the people who sat in at the lunch counter of his hotel” back in the early 1960s. Had it not been for Dr. King’s dream and vision, the land I call home, where I have entertained guests including President Obama and Dr. King’s children, is somewhere I would never have been allowed to live—though I would have been allowed to work there, probably as a servant. I may not remember every moment in my life, but I do remember the moments that changed my life—and that evening was one of them.

When somebody has walked this earth, and years and years after that person’s death you’re still impacted by their words and deeds, you get a sense that their positive influence will continue for generations to come. Many of the principles Dr. King employed to lead, guide and inspire others are ones I try to practice in so many aspects of my life, including my work. One quote that holds particular meaning for me is, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ ” I’ve used these words as an internal arrow that pierces my heart and opens it to light and love. MLK’s words feed the impulse and desire to reach out to others and help lift them higher and change their lives. Although many may see our country as sorely divided now, I believe that Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of helping others and moving through love will ultimately prevail. MLK said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And I want to live as an example of that truth.

But it’s not always easy. Today I find myself standing in the middle of history—with one foot on the neck of the Jim Crow South, a very ugly place—while also standing and embracing the light of “I Have a Dream” professed by Dr. King. Because of Dr. King’s dream, and the countless people who fought against inequality and for the end of segregation, I am now a successful businessman with hundreds of employees. I am able to live where I want and have my son educated wherever he chooses. We can’t be denied because of the color of our skin. I am filled with respect for those who struggled against institutionalized segregation and ultimately helped make it possible for me, and so many others, to stand in the light and see our dreams manifest.

When I think about the courage and strength Dr. King possessed, while still a young man, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I couldn’t imagine taking on the challenges he did, standing face to face with mobs of people filled with prejudice and hate, yet possessing the inner strength to stare them down with love. But when you do this, as Dr. King taught, change becomes inevitable. And this change not only affected people of color; it opened the minds and hearts of millions of other Americans as well.

To move us away from repression and hate, into a country where there’s the possibility of freedom and equality for all, Martin Luther King Jr. made the ultimate sacrifice. He gave his life. In the spirit of all he gave, I often ask others, “Is it too much to show respect, decency and kindness to someone who doesn’t look like you, or come from where you come from?” Now more than ever, I hear the melody and words of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And every day I pray that freedom will continue to ring.

Even though there’s still a lot of work to be done by all of us, I thank God that Dr. King walked this earth and left us with his insight and soulful words of wisdom to help us all overcome. As Dr. King said, “If you can’t fly, then run; if you can’t run, then walk; if you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”

Tyler Perry has created 20 feature films, more than 20 stage plays and nine television shows. His most recent book, Higher Is Waiting, was a New York Times best-seller.

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