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1968 Academy Awards Postponed Due To Martin Luther King Jr.'s Assassination

Culture | April 8, 2020

Sammy Davis Jr. and Barbra Streisand, as the latter presents him with an Oscar, for best song first used in an eligible motion picture, Talk to the Animals during Academy Awards presentations, April 10, 1968. Source: Bettmann / Contributor, via Getty

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, the world was shocked. The nation paused for soul-searching and recovery, and that extended to the 40th annual Academy Awards, initially scheduled for April 8, 1968. Oscar night was postponed for two days in order to give people time to process what was happening and to allow stars who were supporters of King and who wanted to attend his funeral. 1968 was a time of social upheaval and it was clear at the Academy Awards that things were changing - from the types of films that were nominated to the way that the stars responded to current events.

Doctor King’s assassination was devastating news

source: nmaahc

On Thursday, April 4, 1968 King was at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, staying in room 306 just like he always did when he was in the area. That evening he went out onto his balcony where he was struck with a bullet in his right cheek, shattering his jaw and spine. He was immediately taken to St. Jospeh’s Hospital but never regained consciousness. King’s funeral was scheduled for April 9 in Atlanta, one day after the Academy Awards' scheduled date, and many of Hollywood’s most popular black stars planned on attending the procession, which meant that they wouldn’t be in Los Angeles for the show. The Academy had to act.

The Academy needed diverse stars at the show

source: GPB news

1968 was an important year for the Academy Awards. Not only was it one of the most diverse years in Oscar history, but there were two best picture nominees that were about race relations - In The Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. If stars like Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr. skipped out on the event then the Oscars would look tone deaf at best. Before the show was postponed, the aforementioned stars along with Louis Armstrong, Diahann Carroll, and Marlon Brando said that they were going to miss the ceremony to attend King’s funeral with Davis stating on The Tonight Show:

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.

The show was postponed for two days

source: flickr

Rather than look insensitive, the Academy postponed the show until after King’s funeral and canceled the Governors Ball for only time in Oscar history. Once the show was canceled Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong, and Diahann Carroll announced that they were returning to the program. The decision to postpone the show not only helped the Academy save face but it gave people time to grieve - the most important thing. Even though the show was continuing there were still a few surprised and hiccups to come, although nothing as bad as what could have happened if they never postponed the program.

Gregory Peck gave a somber opening to the show

source: ABC

There’s no one better than Gregory Peck, Atticus Finch himself, to open the fraught 1968 Academy Awards. He was one year into his term as the president of the Academy and he took it upon himself to set the tone for the evening. After the red carpet and once the lights went down he took the stage and welcomed everyone to the show. He said:

This has been a fateful week in the history of our nation. We join with fellow members of our profession and men of good will everywhere in paying our profound respects to Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. Society has always been reflected in its art, and one measure on Doctor King’s influence on the society we live in is that of the five films nominated for best picture of the year two deal with the subject of understanding between the races.

Bob Hope was unprepared with the seriousness of the event

source: IMDB

Hope was Mr. Academy Awards. From the ‘50s and into the ’60s he hosted numerous versions of the event and always had a zinger ready at his hip. Unfortunately he was woefully unprepared to perform while most of America was in mourning. At 64 he either didn’t understand why people were so upset about King’s death or he thought that he could get a pass for being aloof in this very upsetting moment. He took the stage in a white bow tie and said, “It’s been tough on the nominees. How would you like to spend two days in a crouch?” Yikes.

Keep in mind that at least four people in attendance were had been in Atlanta mourning the death of Doctor King one day earlier. It’s mot clear if someone chastised Hope backstage or if he just read the room but when he appeared later in the show he struck a mournful post - albeit still a bit tone deaf. he compared the producers who began the film industry to Doctor King. He said, “The men who began our industry had one thing in common with the man from Atlanta: they had a dream.”

In the Heat of the Night took home best picture

source: pinterest

On the night of this already tense event everyone was curious about which film was going to take home the statue for best film of the year. ’68 was a year that was stacked unlike any other. Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, and In the Heat of the Night were all nominated so it’s not like a bad picture could have won out of the group - even Doctor Doolittle has its charms. When the award was announced In The Heat of the Night took the top honor.

Many of the awards that night were won by people of color for films that were specifically about race. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner took home best original screenplay and In the Heat of the Night took home best adapted, while Katharine Hepburn won for best actress in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. While she was not a person of color it’s certainly important that the films was being rewarded for its important work. If the Academy Awards hadn’t been postponed for two days then it’s likely that many of the people involved with these films wouldn’t have been in attendance to see their hard work rewarded. 

Tags: Academy Awards | Martin Luther King Jr. | Oscars | Sammy Davis, Jr. | Sidney Poitier

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.