Opinion | Patrick Parr

Fifty years later, MLK’s complexity hangs in the balance

In this 1963 image released by HBO, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., right, receives a kiss from his wife Coretta Scott King as they appear in Alabama with Nipsey Russell, back row left, and Harry Belafonte. The image appears in the documentary "King in the Wilderness." (Ivan Massar/Take Stock/The Image Works/HBO via AP)
Ivan Massar/Take Stock/The Image Works/HBO via AP
Martin Luther King, Jr., right, receives a kiss from his wife, Coretta Scott King, as they appear in Alabama in 1963 with comedian Nipsey Russell, back row left, and singer Harry Belafonte. The image appears in the documentary “King in the Wilderness.”

As we mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, I have one question on my mind that just won’t go away: Are Americans more interested in the details of King’s death than they are with his 39-year life?

The compartmentalization of King’s life has led to a simplistic two-picture projection. We remember his “I Have a Dream” speech, on Aug. 28, 1963, and we remember him standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. In the words of his Crozer Theological Seminary professor and friend Kenneth Smith, “We have frozen Martin’s feet to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963,” failing to realize the overall complexity of King and his message to the American people.

We see the name Martin Luther King Jr. everywhere. Schools and highways all over the country use his name as their identity. There are countless statues of him with arm raised — a speaker as confident as Cicero. He’s in bronze, silver, and gold, but as the years went by, I stopped being satisfied with these surface-level honors. I wanted to know the man before he became simply an icon of justice. I wanted him to be real — someone I could relate to, because staring at a bronze statue wasn’t doing anything for me, nor was driving down Martin Luther King Highway, or passing by Martin Luther King High School. In a way, he is so remembered as to be forgotten, an immortal drifting into oblivion.


As time continues to slip by, perhaps it would be wise to, at least once more, view King as an actual man and review his life in total. If Martin Luther King Jr. had lived, he would be 89 years old. There are at least two million people in the United States that age or older. Many of them still remember Dr. King’s soaring speeches and daily sacrifice.

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One of those people is Christine Farris, Dr. King’s sister, now 90. On April 3, 2009, she spoke at Boston University about the life of her brother, and the power he gained from his educational experience in the North: “Never doubt,” she said, at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, “that education is the key to social, economic, and political empowerment.”

On another occasion, in January 1986, Christine wrote an article for Ebony, titled “The Young Martin: From Childhood to College.” In that piece, Farris reminded readers about how normal her brother actually was. Martin, she wrote, “was no saint, ordained as such at birth. Instead, he was an average and ordinary man, called by a God, in whom he had a deep and abiding faith, to perform extraordinary deeds . . . for freedom, peace and justice. That, after all, is the best way each of us can celebrate Martin’s life.”

Today, you will hear about King’s death, but it was his life of sacrifice that killed him. As he once said, “It isn’t so important how long you live, the important thing is how well you live.”

King lived well, and with a purpose that continues to inspire my own life.

Patrick Parr is the author of “The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age.”