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As an Actor, Bringing the Spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. to Life

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LeVar Burton played Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 2001 film "Ali."

The first time I was cast to portray Dr. Martin Luther King was in a school play. The role was little more than a cameo at the end of a production at St. Ann's Elementary in Sacramento, California. My back was to the audience for most of my time on stage and I had no lines of dialogue to deliver.

The experience was terrifying!

It wasn't terrifying because of any sense of discomfort at being onstage literally thrust into the light. No, it wasn't stage fright, but the role itself, that was so intimidating. You see, Dr. King was such a towering figure in my life; such a pillar of indomitable courage, strength and dignity, that I believed there was no way that I could even begin to approximate his character, even in pretending. In my mind I was woefully unworthy, plain and simple.

Trying to persuade the director, my classmate, Jeffrey Beecroft, that I wasn't right for the part however, proved fruitless, as his logic was fairly unassailable; I was the only African-American boy in the 5th Grade. There was no other choice, it had to be me! I remember the sense of burning passion Jeffrey exuded in communicating to me what he saw as the importance of this one moment; the appearance of Dr. King himself, at the end play. On cue, I was to turn to the audience, bathed in a pool of light and point emphatically at no one in particular, but with a feeling of intensity meant to indict all of the assembled for the crime of his recent assassination. The knots of dread in my stomach that accompanied both performances on that day are as indelibly carved in my childhood memories as any I can now recall. Needless to say, I survived the trauma of those few moments on the lunchroom stage and that experience has informed me then as well as now, of the value of taking on certain challenges in life, in spite of the fear associated with those challenges.

Since that long ago day, I have been called upon as an actor a few more times, to bring to life the spirit of Dr. King. Most notably, under the direction of Michael Mann, in the motion picture, Ali, starring Will Smith and on the audio version of The Autobiography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Clayborne Carson, for which I won a Grammy in the 'Spoken Word' category in 1999. On each occasion and in every instance that familiar feeling of terror has been present in me. The fear that I am indeed inadequate and unworthy of the task of representing, in any manner, the essence of my martyred hero, rises inevitably up in me, to be neither denied nor ignored. However, in the end it has been the very inspiration of Dr. King himself that has always won the day. He taught me that there is grace in perseverance and that salvation lies in not allowing our fears to paralyze us into a state of non-action.

Like all great saints of my Catholic upbringing, Dr. King lived his life by a powerful yet deceptively simple principle ... That love is truly stronger than fear and that more than anything else, it is our fear that separates us from reaching our fullest potential.

As we commemorate today in celebration of the life of this modern day saint, let us all remember the power of the truth by which he lived and died and most importantly, apply his message as best as we are able, in our own lives.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Read all the posts in the series here.