Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced last week that the butchered quote etched into the stone memorial for Martin Luther King Junior will be corrected, to the relief of many who were disturbed by the incorrect message the quote sends about one of America’s greatest leaders.
“This is important because Dr. King and his presence on the Mall is a forever presence for the United States of America, and we have to make sure that we get it right,” Salazar said.
The quote that is on the left flank of the memorial reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
Does Not Sound Like King
One writer for the Washington Post, Rachel Mauteuffel, feels this quote makes King sound, “almost…conceited. And it was past tense, as though King was speaking from the grave. It didn’t sound like King at all.”
The correct quote, taken in context, reads as follows: “If you want to say I was a drum major, say I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
With the opening clause left intact the quote now is understandable. The “If you” changes the entire feeling and thrust of the statement.
Writers Agree the Quote is Bad
Poet Maya Angelou, who worked with King and knew him well, said the shortened form made King appear to be “an arrogant twit.” One expert on the use of words, Roy Peter Clark, writing for CNN said, “Everything I’ve learned about the language of enshrinement suggests that the inscription on the King monument should be revised.”
Stephen Colbert, a satirist for Comedy Central believed that the quote was, “to the point. Not Dr. King’s point, but still. Brevity is the soul of saving money on chiseling fees.”
Form Over Content
Apparently the original plans for the memorial included the original quote, which the sidewalk T-shirt vendors got right even if the memorial itself got it wrong. So what went wrong? It seems that after the plans for the memorial were approved the head architect and the sculptor thought the memorial would look better with fewer words. Although not writers, they edited the quote themselves, not noticing or not caring that the truncated quote conveyed an entirely different meaning.
“This is important because Dr. King and his presence on the Mall is a forever presence for the United States of America, and we have to make sure that we get it right,” Secretary Salazar said.
Salazar added that “I do not think it (the quote) is an accurate portrayal of what Dr. King was.”
Secretary Salazar has given the National Park Service 30 days to change the quote because, “things only happen when you put a deadline on it.”
This is more than a small victory of the strength of public opinion over the slow-moving wheels of bureaucracy. It is also a demonstration of the power of words, a power which Martin Luther King understood and one of his most important lessons for us and for posterity.