Towering legend, flawed man? Martin Luther King Jr.'s image evolving
Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — On the National Mall in Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. is a towering, heroic figure carved in stone. On the Broadway stage, he's a living, breathing man who chain smokes, sips liquor and occasionally curses.
As Americans honor King's memory 44 years after he was assassinated, the image of the slain civil rights leader is evolving.
The new King memorial, which opened in August in the nation's capital, celebrates the ideals King espoused. Quotations from his speeches and writings conjure memories of his message, and a 30-foot-tall sculpture depicts King emerging as a "stone of hope" from a "mountain of despair," a design inspired by a line of his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
Some gaze upon this figure in silence. Some smile and pull out cell phone cameras. Others chat about how closely the statue resembles King. And some are moved to tears.
"Just all that this man did so that we could do anything and be anything," said Brandolyn Brown, 26, of Cheraw, S.C., who visited the memorial Saturday with her aunt and cousin.
"I know it took a lot more than him to get to where we are, but he was a big part of the movement."
Brown's aunt, Gloria Drake, 60, of Cheraw, S.C., said she remembers King almost as though he was Moses leading his people to the promised land, even when there were so many reasons to doubt things would get better in an era of segregated buses, schools and lunch counters.
"It was really just hostile," she said. "... And then we had a man that comes to tell us things are going to be better."
"Don't be mad, don't be angry," she recalled King's message. "Just come together in peace."
They said King's lasting legacy is the reality of equality and now having a black president. Drake said President Barack Obama reminds her of King with his "calmness" even in the face of anger.
Christine Redman, 37, visited the memorial with her husband, James Redman, 40, and their young son and daughter. She said they also feel a personal connection to King.
"We're a mixed family, and we know that without a lot of the trials that he went through to help end segregation and help the races to become one, we would not be able to have the freedoms to love who we want to love and be accepted in the world," she said.
Her son, 8-year-old Tyler, echoed his mom: "And be who we want to be."
The family tries to celebrate King's birthday by finding a way to serve others, they said. They were thinking about volunteering at a food pantry or donating toys for needy kids.
When he thinks of King, James Redman said he thinks of hope. Still, he said, King's legacy is lost on many.
"Dr. King was about love and about cooperation and compromise and working together," he said. "We don't see a whole lot of that in our leaders. We don't see a whole lot of it in our citizenry."
On Broadway, theatergoers are seeing a different version of King — one that is more man than legend.
The realism was refreshing for Donya Fairfax, who marveled after leaving a matinee of "The Mountaintop" that she had never really thought of King cursing, as actor Samuel L. Jackson does while portraying King in the play.
"He was human and not someone who was above fault," said the 48-year-old, visiting from Los Angeles. "He cursed. He did things that people do behind closed doors. He was regular."
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