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January 13, 2006

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 13, 2006

A man in full A man in full (January 13, 2006)

Play paints sweeping portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., in all his flaws and triumphs

by Sue Dremann

The glory of the mountaintop and the valleys into which Martin Luther King Jr. sank before his assassination are brought to life in Clayborne Carson's play "Passages of Martin Luther King."

The two-act play, which will be excerpted in a dramatic reading on Jan. 15 at Stanford University, focuses on the life of King the man, in contrast to King the icon of the civil rights movement. The performance is part of the inauguration and King celebration at the new Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford.

Most people who know Martin Luther King Jr. as a man who stood at the pinnacle of the mountaintop during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s will glimpse a vulnerable King, whose life rivals that of the mythical figures of Greek tragedy.

The impassioned preacher, whose oratory prowess perhaps remains unmatched, was also a flawed individual filled with doubts and insecurities, according to Carson, director of the institute and longtime editor of the King Papers Project at Stanford.

King would have been little more than another preacher, his voice confined behind the walls of his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama, Carson said. But all of the planets aligned, beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott, to turn King into an icon.

Spending many years as Coretta Scott King's handpicked curator of King's papers, Carson has come to know King the man intimately. That man was a son at times in conflict with a domineering parent; a husband and father; and an adulterer and plagiarist, Carson said. But Carson said those flaws do not diminish King's achievements, even though some have tried to use them to discredit him.

Play director Michael Elkins, head of the theater arts department at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, agrees. He says King is on par with tragic heroes such as Oedipus, who looks at his fate and follows it; and John Proctor in "The Crucible," who is pushed into a situation in which he must do the correct thing.

King is much more like every one of us, with one major exception: he saw where his fate would lead him -- to his untimely death -- but nevertheless he carried on, and therein lies his greatness, Carson said.

"It would have been boring building him up as a statue-like figure," Carson said. "It's more inspiring when a person with flaws of their own can bring about tremendously important changes," Carson said.

The play is at heart the story of a father and son. To some degree, King's life replicates his father's. They were both civil rights leaders. The father is a towering figure in the younger King's life, but the son breaks away from him, Carson said. And King Jr. has a crisis of faith early on and his politics are more radical than his father's.

"King saw himself falling between the personalities of his parents. His father was strong and dominant, his mother, nurturing. He's always torn between the pole of radicalism and militancy on the one hand and moderation on the other," Carson said.

The Jan. 15 reading, which involves six actors, covers the last four years of King's life, opening with his receipt of the Nobel Peace prize. It includes his debates with Malcolm X and Stokley Carmichael and ends with his assassination in 1968. Rather than seeing his rise to prominence, viewers will see him as increasingly embattled and unpopular, Carson said.

King's position was challenged as some of black America became increasingly radicalized by Malcolm X and Carmichael and their anthems of violent self-protection and black power. The early triumphs of the nonviolent movement are eclipsed by the Chicago riots and the national focus toward the Vietnam War.

Again and again, King is faced with the choice of retreating to the shadows of complacency or taking a stand. When he opposes the Vietnam War, it is the pinnacle of the drama, Carson said. It's then that he is at his most isolated; he has cut the support he received from the government and liberal whites. But he has made the decision because, as he says at the end of the play, " are just as dead at 39 as you would be at 90 ... when you refused to stand up for right."

The play is rife with King's premonitions of his death. He is stabbed in the chest by a deranged woman early on, and his life is threatened repeatedly. When President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, King knows he too will be killed. And he is not afraid, Coretta King says in the play. "Even when they realize that (death will come), they know they have to go on anyway, and we love the hero because of it," Elkins said.

The dynamics between King and Malcolm X also intrigue Carson. "Malcolm is always trying to get King's attention, since the 1950s. He wrote letters to King, but King never answered," Carson said. Carson believes that at least some of Malcolm X's fire against King was due to being ignored.

Toward the end of the play, Malcolm X was moving toward conciliation with King. Carson believes the civil rights movement might have taken on a new dimension had both men lived to join together. A potential meeting between the two was quashed when King was in jail. Shortly thereafter, Malcolm X was assassinated.

"Both were religious leaders who felt religion had to play a role in the world. Religion focuses on religious salvation ... its function is to get converts to pull away from the world. King and Malcolm were similar, saying you have to build, to mobilize to make the world better."

What: Dramatic reading of excerpts from the play "Passages of Martin Luther King" by Clayborne Carson

Where: Memorial Church, Stanford University

When: Jan. 15, noon to 1:30 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: The performance is part of the inaugural celebration of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute at Stanford. For a complete list of events, go to or call (650) 723-2092.

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