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When Julia Roberts got in trouble for calling South Carolina ‘racist’

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When Julia Roberts was on the cusp of major movie stardom in 1990, she got in trouble for comments she made to Rolling Stone about a small South Carolina town being “horribly racist” after a Black friend was denied service at a local bar.

Residents of the town didn’t take kindly to someone from Hollywood stereotyping them in this way and took an ad out in Variety calling the “Pretty Woman” star, “pretty low,” reports said at the time.

Roberts’ brave decision as a young actor to stand up against racism took on added resonance over the weekend with the reminder that her parents were friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, in Atlanta. Roberts offered the surprising news that the civil rights leaders paid the hospital bill for her birth.

Roberts shared the news of this surprising connection in September when she sat down with Gayle King for A+E Network’s and History Channel’s HISTORY Talks series in Washington, D.C. Roberts’ revelation gained traction on her 55th birthday Friday, via a tweet from Zara Rahim, a former strategic advisor for Barack Obama. The tweet shares a clip of Roberts’ interview with King as the “CBS Mornings” show host coaxes the birth story out of her.

“The King family paid for my hospital bill,” Roberts confirmed. “Martin Luther King and Coretta.”

Roberts then explained how her parents, Walter and Betty Lou Roberts, were friends with the Kings because they had opened a theater school in Atlanta, the Actors and Writers’ Workshop, before Roberts was born in 1967.

At the time, Actors and Writers’ Workshop was one of the few schools, if not the only school, to accept the King children. Segregation kept the civil rights leader’s daughters from attending White schools.

“One day Coretta called my mother and asked if her kids could be part of the school because they were having a hard time finding a place that would accept her kids,” Roberts told King. “My mom was like, ‘Sure, come on over,’ and so they all just became friends.”

Unfortunately, the daughters’ entry into the school sparked violence. A member of the Ku Klux Klan blew up a Buick outside the school in 1965 after Yolanda, the King’s eldest daughter, was cast in a play in which she kissed writer Philip DePoy, then a 15-year-old white student. DePoy chronicled the act of domestic terrorism aimed at a children’s play in an essay for ARTS ATL in 2013.

“I kissed a girl, and 10 yards away, a Buick exploded,” DePoy wrote. “The girl was Yolanda King, daughter of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. I was primarily Caucasian and Yolanda wasn’t. That’s what the trouble was about. I don’t know who owned the Buick, but I know who blew it up.”

DePoy said he was playing a fox, and Yolanda King was cast as a terrapin, and they were wearing their animal costumes in the scene. “No one in his right mind would have assumed we were striking a blow for any sort of human dignity or rights, but this man was not in his right mind,” DePoy wrote.

Roberts told Gayle King that the Kings “helped us out of a jam” when her parents couldn’t afford to pay the hospital bill for her birth on Oct. 28, 1967, in Smyrna, Georgia.

The star never stopped being vocal about racial injustice, which explains why she spoke up to Rolling Stone in 1990 about her experience filming “Sleeping With the Enemy,” her follow-up to her breakout hit, “Pretty Woman,” the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.

Roberts also told Rolling Stone that working in Abbeville was “a living hell.”

Outraged by Roberts’ comments, more than 100 residents of upstate South Carolina contributed money for a $467 ad that appeared in Variety, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“Are there racists here?” the ad said. “Perhaps some, as there are throughout the world. But they do not define us.”

It was considered risky for a new star to invite controversy by speaking out on such a substantive topic, and Roberts was apparently asked to do some damage control. She clarified her statement by saying she was referring to just one incident, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“I was born in the South, so in no way am I trying to create a stereotype,” Roberts said in a statement. She said she was referring to when her Black friend, a member of the crew, was refused service at an Abbeville bar. She reportedly got “into a fiery argument” with the owner of the bar.

Roberts added: “I was shocked that this type of treatment still exists in America in the ‘90s — in the South or anywhere else.”

In a CNN interview with Roberts, her mother, Betty, and Yolanda King defended Roberts for speaking up about the racism she encountered in Abbeville: “I can see her doing that. I can see it pouring forth from her, and rightfully so.”

In Roberts’ conversation with King about her parents’ relationship with the Kings, the morning show host said, “In the ’60s, you didn’t have little Black children interacting with little White kids in an acting school, and your parents were like, ‘Come on in.’ I think that’s extraordinary, and it sort of lays the groundwork for who you are.”

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