The memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. has been a little controversial — but not for the right reason. Someone, somewhere along the line, made a decision that makes King look like something he was not: an arrogant jerk.
“I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
When I looked up the King quote, I found that the sin was actually worse than simply shoe-horning in an uncharacteristically immodest statement. The quote carved into the memorial on the Mall is not what Martin Luther King Jr. said. This is the equivalent of a Hollywood publicist pulling four words out of context from a newspaper review to make a bad film seem good. Except in this case, it’s the reverse: It takes the good out of context and makes it bad.
King’s full quote:
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
This comes at the end of a long and powerful sermon. The speech, called “The Drum Major Instinct,” is about the desire in the human spirit to be great without doing any great, difficult things. To be at the front of the pack, drawing all the attention. This is folly, King says. And then, right at the start of the words at issue, he says, “if.” If you want to make me a drum major, then say I was a drum major for justice.
An “if” clause is an extraordinarily bad thing to leave out of a quote. If I had to be a type of cheese, being Swiss is best.
The arc of a mistake is long, and it now stretches from the Oval Office over to the Mall.
An error has been etched in marble on the grand Martin Luther King Jr. memorial that was to be dedicated Sunday, on the 48th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Some of King’s speeches and writings have been inscribed in the memorial. But one of the sayings on the wall by the Tidal Basin is incorrect — or incomplete — in its attribution.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
According to David Remnick’s biography of Obama, that is the president’s “favorite quotation.” Obama brought the idea back into present-day parlance and even had it sewn into the rug in the Oval Office when he redecorated last year. But as I wrote on this page last September, King is not the source of that quote.
The president should correct the record on words he cherishes, which are mistakenly and commonly cited as King’s.
Theodore Parker, a long-gone Bostonian abolitionist and Unitarian minister, is the true author. The charismatic Parker died at age 49 in 1860, just before the Civil War.