50 years have passed since, on 4th April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39 years old.

There is a phrase, attributed, coincidentally, to fellow murder victim Abraham Lincoln and often recited at funerals, proclaiming that ‘in the end it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years.’ This expression certainly applies to Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK).

Born Michael King in Atlanta, Georgia on 15th January 1929, he was renamed by his father after the pioneering German reformer Martin Luther. A gifted scholar, MLK was admitted, at the age of 15, to Morehouse College where he studied medicine and law.

Under the mentorship of the college president, an influential theologian, MLK changed tack to follow in his father’s footsteps and, after graduating in 1948, entered Crozer Theological Seminary where he gained a Bachelor of Divinity degree and won a prestigious fellowship.

King then enrolled in a graduate programme at Boston University, earning a doctorate in systematic theology. While in Boston he met Coretta Scott. The couple wed in 1953 and settled in Montgomery, Alabama where MLK became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

Settled may be slight exaggeration as their chosen city was soon to become the epicentre of the burgeoning struggle for civil rights in America. On 1st December 1955, Rosa Parks, secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus and was promptly arrested. For the resulting protest, local activists chose MLK as their leader and official spokesman.

By the time the Supreme Court ruled that segregated seating on public buses was unconstitutional (November 1956), MLK, heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, had entered the national spotlight as an inspirational advocate of organised, non-violent resistance.

In 1957, King and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a group committed to achieving equality for African Americans through peaceful means. As SCLC president, MLK travelled extensively, lecturing and meeting high-profile figures. In 1960, King and his budding family moved to Atlanta where he joined his father as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church.

MLK and his SCLC colleagues were key players in many of the significant civil rights battles of that time. It was, however, the culmination of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which provided King with his signature moment. His address, known simply as ‘I Have a Dream’, on 28th August 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, has become one of the most famous speeches of all time.

This event cemented MLK’s reputation at home and abroad. He was named ‘Man of the Year’ by TIME magazine and in 1964 he became the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

With such achievements to his name, it is easy to overlook that MLK was beginning to pay the price for notoriety. His fierce criticism of the Vietnam War, his preaching on the radical distribution of wealth, his clashes with more militant black leaders were diminishing his popularity. Key allies in Washington abandoned him. He received frequent death threats.

His personal life was increasingly troubled too. A relentless schedule had led to weight gain, sleep deprivation and greater recourse to drinking and smoking.

MLK’s marriage was strained both from his travels and dalliances. Coretta was required almost single-handedly to stay at home and raise their four children. King, however, had close female friends in cities as far apart as New York and Los Angeles.  New records from the US National Archives, published in 2017, confirmed MLK’s appetite for extramarital affairs, with the distinct possibility that one more serious liaison led to the birth of a baby girl. The story goes, also, that a woman with whom King enjoyed a special relationship was staying at the Lorraine the night before he was shot.

At a particularly low moment, weighed down by his whirlwind lifestyle, MLK was heard to utter “Martin Luther King is finished.” Certainly, the MLK who came to Memphis in the April of 1968 was a very different individual from the one we have come to venerate.

In remembering MLK, therefore, let’s not simply recall the hero but also the man. He was no saint and it is only by recognising, if not applauding, his imperfections that we can appreciate his extraordinary contribution. He held the line on non-violence through moments of doubt, apprehension and exhaustion. Martin Luther King Jr. remains an inextinguishable beacon of flesh-and-blood humanity.

And, in these scary times, if we need a thought for every day, try these: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”