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.”
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 ER physicians and a psychiatrist.
Dr. Jan Thomas agreed:
“We’re standing on that mountaintop.”