- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2012

On the 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 83 years after his birth, 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 cellphone 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.”

Ms. Brown’s aunt, Gloria Drake, 60, 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.

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.

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.”