The assassination of the civil rights leader 50 years ago prompted a two-day delay of the 1968 Academy Awards as several stars — including scheduled performer Sammy Davis Jr., along with Diahann Carroll, Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando — backed out to attend the April 9 service in Atlanta.
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. put the Academy Awards in a tricky position.
The 1968 ceremony was shaping up to be one of the most diverse Oscars to date, with two African-American nominees (Quincy Jones and Beah Richards), two best picture nominees that centered on race (In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and four black artists (Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong, Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll) slated to perform. But the show was scheduled for April 8, the night before King’s funeral.
The day after the killing, Davis declared on The Tonight Show that he wouldn’t perform: “I certainly think any black man should not appear. I find it morally incongruous to sing ‘Talk to the Animals’ while the man who could make a better world for my children is lying in state.”
He wasn’t the only one to back out. Poitier, Armstrong, Carroll, Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando, who were attending the funeral, wouldn’t make it back to L.A. in time.
Faced with this exodus, the Academy postponed the ceremony two days and canceled the Governors Ball (for the only time in Oscars history). Academy president Gregory Peck opened the show with a tribute to King, and THR summed up the night as one of “solemnity, glamour [and a] sense of unity.”
A version of this story appears in the April 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.