Image: Stone of Hope at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial
Michael Reynolds  /  EPA
The King memorial in Washington, DC
updated 1/15/2012 3:08:34 PM ET 2012-01-15T20:08:34

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 memorial
The new King memorial, which opened in August in the U.S. capital, celebrates the ideals King espoused. Quotations from his speeches and writings conjure memories of his message, and a 30-foot (9-meter)-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, South Carolina, 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, South Carolina, 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 children.

When he thinks of King, James Redman said he thinks of hope. Still, he said, King's legacy is lost on many.

Image: Quotes by Martin Luther King
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
The King memorial at dusk

"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."

The stage
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."

For some, such a portrayal would seem to chip away at King's memory. But for Natalie Pertz, who at 20 has come to know King only through the gauzy view of history, it seemed a precious reminder that it is not beyond the reach of the ordinary and the flawed to effect change.

"It's important for people our age to see that he wasn't this saint-like figure," she said. "It's making you see that just because you're not perfect, it doesn't mean you can't do good."

For M.E. Ward, seeing an in-the-flesh incarnation of King brought her back more than 40 years, to when she watched his soaring speeches on the television. No matter how human he seemed on stage, she said, he still carried a godly gift.

"Still charismatic, still an orator, and an individual who was able to move people through his speech," she said, adding that King enlightened the world with a message "to be peaceful, to be patient, to be non-violent."

No matter how distant his presence is now, that legacy is still very relevant, she said, in what she called "a world of turmoil and violence, constant violence."

Do people idealize him too much?

"They don't do it enough!" said 64-year-old Elisabeth Carr, who cried through most of the play, feeling some of the pain she felt when the civil rights leader died. "The younger generation, they don't know anymore. ... They don't understand what they went through."

After traveling more than five hours with three friends — all of them African-American — to see Saturday's matinee, Mariko Tapper Taylor said seeing King in all his flaws did nothing to diminish his legacy.

"It's better to remember him as human," she said. "Who's flawless? It just shows that there's another side of him."

For her, the holiday remains very personal, Taylor said.

One of her friends, Dr. Donnita Scott, chimed in:

"If it wasn't for him we probably wouldn't be doctors," she said, nodding at the group, which includes two emergency room physicians and a psychiatrist.

Dr. Jan Thomas agreed:

"We're standing on that mountaintop."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Controversial MLK memorial quote to be changed

  1. Closed captioning of: Controversial MLK memorial quote to be changed

    >>> tomorrow america honors the memory of dr. martin luther king , jr. this year the new memorial in washington will be open to visit and remember his legacy. jeff johnson joins us with a good sunday morning to you, jeff. as we all prepare to honor dr. martin luther king , jr., a quote on his memorial in d.c. is going to be changed following complaints the statement was inscribed out of its original context. i was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. but advocates complain the quote makes him appear self-righteous or arrogant. what he really said was this quote. if you want to say that i was a drum major, say that i was a drum major for justice, say that i was a drum major for peace. i was a drum major for righteousness and all of the other shallow things will not matter. what are your thoughts on this change?

    >> it's accurate. this was from his drum major instinct speech which was really an opportunity for king to talk about the kind of leadership that not just black america needed but america needed. he was very keen on talking about he fed -- he worked for those that did not have. he even talked about the fact that his degrees didn't matter. all the awards didn't matter. the fact that the nobel peace prize that he received didn't matter. but how he served is how he wanted to be remembered. it's historically accurate.

    >> okay. how about this new study out there. this is the new ninth annual state of the dream report in which it shows this year, minorities make up almost of half of u.s. residents. by 2030 , a majority of residents will be minorities. looking into 2042 , 30 years from now, minorities will be a majority of the american population. jeff, this study raises serious concerns predicting that economic problems for minorities will get worse if the size of government is cut. what are your thoughts on that?

    >> well, i mean, we have to understand there are a large number of people of color that work for the government. if you're looking at that alone, so many of the government jobs that people are losing have been lost by people of color . you're also talking about how, through this debate between conservatives and progress sifs, how is government going to effectively move forward in providing to those that are part of the 99%, the services that they need to be able to kind of bridge the wealth gap to be able to have opportunity, to be able to have the dream of home ownership, to be able to go on to college. even if you look at the unemployment rates, the unemployment rates have been double digit for african-americans. not in the last four years, but since 1972 . and so i think these are the questions we continue to talk about over and over again. but solutions will be essential if the numbers about population are going to be true.

    >> what about the racial wealth gap , do you think that could grow wider as the minority population grows?

    >> it's going to grow wider if we don't see increased opportunity. i don't think it's a question. i think it's a certainty unless we see certain things clearly change.

    >> how do you think dr. king would interpret these differences in america now as to when he was alive?

    >> well, i think the better question is how would we interpret them? i think dr. king wag clear about being aggressive in addressing inee qualities of all people. at the time of his death, he was dealing with the poor people 's campaign, which is a campaign we could use right now. if you talk to those that are occupiers, regardless of where they are, they in many cases are the legacy of what king was fighting for, pushing for those that don't vi. i think he would be frustrated with the continued inequality, not just for african-americans but for a vast population of people in america .

    >> okay. grit, jeff johnson good to see you.


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