The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. looms over our nation daily. In recent years, Black creators like Ava Duvernary and Lee Daniels have worked to tell his story from different angles, and for decades Black performers have used their talents to translate the impact of the civil rights icon and his beloved wife on screens big and small.
Interpretations of the image of King Jr. have appeared in multiple miniseries, films, and Broadway plays. So have interpretations of the stoic queen who dedicated her life to caring for him in life and death, Coretta Scott King.
Some focus on MLK as a foil to other social justice movements, while others focus on him as a family man fighting to balance the needs of his wife and children with his commitment to Black liberation.
Set in different points of his tragically short life, and told from various perspectives on his actions, each portrayal attempts to shed light on the father, friend, and husband at the center of the historic headlines, and the bond that was able to withstand the weight of Cointelpro.
A few of the most celebrated theatrical talents in our community have taken cracks at the roles throughout the years with each bringing something different to their careful portrayal of the iconic figures.
See 15 actors who have had the privilege of playing Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King in their careers below.
The veteran actress and new author portrayed Scott-King in the 1978 television miniseries King.
The late Emmy award-winning actor played King in the three-part limited series King.
Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson owned the role on stage in the Broadway smash from Katori Hall The Mountaintop.
Before he had us jumping for joy over the return of Reading Rainbow, Burton was putting his personal touch on the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 2001 film Ali.
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Bassett played Scott-King in the 2013 made-for-television production Betty & Coretta alongside Mary J. Blige.
Yoba played Bassett’s on-screen husband when he portrayed the iconic activist in 2013’s Betty & Coretta.
Powell’s version of Martin Luther King Jr. inspired a young Jurnee Smollett to fight for civil rights onscreen in 1999’s Selma, Lord, Selma.
Courtney B. Vance
Over a decade before his bride would portray Coretta Scott King, Courtney B. Vance claimed the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 2000 miniseries Parting the Waters.
Carmen Ejogo had the rare honor of playing Coretta Scott King twice. She held the role in HBO’s Boycott in 2001 and once again in Ava Duvernay’s Selma in 2014.
Oyelowo was the subject of widespread praise for his layered portrayal of King in the Ava Duvernay film Selma in 2014. The movie had such an impact schools scheduled film trips to ensure students screened it.
David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay
The late Robert Guillaume played King in 1985’s Kennedy brothers biopic Prince Jack.
Dexter Scott King
King’s son Dexter Scott King played his father in The Rosa Parks Story in 2002.
The late actor played King in the critically acclaimed Lee Daniels film The Butler.
The Westworld star brought his talent for thunderous monologues to the role in the 2001 TV movie Boycott.
James Earl Jones
With an acting career spanning over 50 years, it’s quite a wonder why the Mississippi native hasn’t received one. Jones’ impeccable credits include roles in the play adaptation of Fences, The Lion King, Coming to America, and many more works.