Danny Glover was not necessarily meant to be an actor. He didn’t step foot on the stage until he was in college, and even then it wasn’t the main thing.
The main thing was being a good citizen.
And his main examples were his parents.
As a kid, Glover would observe his mom and dad watching the nightly newscast. He would note the intensity with which they took in current events.
“What I knew and saw and remember so vividly … and vicariously experiencing through my parents, were the moments during the civil rights movement,” Glover said recently in a short interview at Burke High School. “If you have parents … watching the Montgomery bus boycott, you turn around and watch the reaction on their face. Their reaction tells you everything.
"They’re looking at this every night. … You’re interested as a child (in) understanding what they see through their eyes, and interpreting it for yourself. All I knew when I saw these people was that I wanted to be like them.”
Glover was in Charleston last week for the Civil Rights Film Festival, organized by the College of Charleston’s Jon Hale, a professor of education and history and co-director of the Quality Education Project; and Benjamin Hedin, an author, filmmaker and scholar of the civil rights movement.
The festival included a screening of “Freedom Song,” a made-for-TV movie released in 2000 that stars Glover. The actor led a roundtable discussion at Burke and joined a post-screening panel.
Before the lights went down in the auditorium, he made himself briefly available to press and a few students participating in the Backpack Journalist after-school program.
Glover might be most famous for playing Roger Murtaugh in the "Lethal Weapon" film series and “Mister” in “The Color Purple,” but many also know him as a political activist. His participation in festival events is par for Glover’s course. He often engages with students and others about political and economic issues.
He joined a student-led strike at San Francisco State University to get the school to implement the nation’s first black studies program in the late 1960s. He became a vocal critic of Apartheid, and he once was arrested at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., while protesting the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Glover has long advocated for labor unions. He joined public protests of the Iraq War launched by George W. Bush. He campaigned for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential election.
His sense of civic duty stems from a youthful encounter with an influential teacher who expected students not only to do well academically, but to become aware of, and contribute positively to, the wider world. In short, to become citizens.
It also stems from the lessons learned at home.
“My dad was a jazz man,” he said. “Not a musician, but he had — how would you say? — the demeanor of a jazz musician, even in the way he talked. My dad was the coolest cat I knew, man, you know what I’m saying? So you have, in my household, you have my mother who comes out of the Deep South, religious, ... gospel music on Sunday, music blasting before she goes to church. Then you have my dad come out of Kansas City, Missouri, right there all the big bands.”
His father, James Glover, moved to upstate New York where he met Carrie Hunley and recognized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Danny Glover said.
“He was his own dude; she was a great woman. And he said, ‘Look here man, the train is going this way, I’m gonna jump on the caboose!'” He recognized a confident woman with vision. “I think about her and how just remarkable my mom was. Great women raise great men.”
The first in her family to graduate from college, Carrie Glover made sure her kids were on a good path.
Jazz played in the house regularly. James Glover “could listen to the Ellington band or Basie band and tell you who’s playing what instrument, whether it’s Johnny Hodges or whoever it was right there, who’s playing tenor sax, who’s playing alto,” Danny Glover recalled.
His father attended the Monterey Jazz Festival every year since its inception.
“I told Nancy Wilson, when I saw that first album with her and Cannonball Adderley, with that yellow dress, that I wanted to marry her! I can see that picture of me, I’m like 16 years old. What is this?”
Today, Glover sits on the the board of the Jazz Foundation of America.
As a teenager and young man, Glover wasn’t much enamored by the notion of performing for others. He didn’t participate much in church pageants, disappointing his mother. Maybe at Easter or Christmas he’d be the kid off to the side holding a palm in front of his face.
“The first time I was on stage I was 20 years old,” he said. “The Black Student Union had invited (revolutionary writer) Amiri Baraka for a semester in the spring of 1967, out at San Francisco State, and he came to start what was called a Community Communication Project. He came in the black student union that spring and said, ‘I want some of you so-called revolutionaries to be in this play. I had never been on stage. He emphasized the word ‘so-called.’”
Glover auditioned and got a role.
“It didn’t change my life immediately because I finished school,” he continued. “Around 1973 it (acting) started interesting me again. Then I ended up at the Black Actors Workshop at the American Conservatory Theater at night, working during the day, in 1975, 1976; I quit my job at the end of 1977. Then boom.”
His career took off.
“Then I found my writer, the guy who wrote for me, Athol Fugard,” Glover said, referring to the great South African playwright whose work struck a profound chord within Glover. “He gave me an angle, he gave me a purpose.”
He showed Glover that art and politics are often intrinsically intertwined, that the artist is obligated not just to entertain but to strive to change the world.