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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fixing a King Quotation

Myths and misinformation are hard to correct when they are literally carved in stone. An August post excerpted an article describing how the Martin Luther King Memorial had garbled a quotation from Dr. King. The Washington Post now reports on a fix:
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ordered a correction to a badly mangled quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. inscribed in granite on the Tidal Basin memorial to the slain civil rights leader.
Salazar said Friday that he has told the National Park Service to consult with the memorial foundation and the King family and to report back to him within 30 days with a plan to fix the carved excerpt that turned a modest and mellifluous phrase into a prideful boast.
The paraphrase on the north face of the 30-foot-tall granite statue comes from a powerful and poignant 1968 sermon King delivered two months before his assassination. King spoke of the “drum major instinct” as the epitome of egotism, a self-centered view of the world that he denounced. Imagining his eulogy, King used the conditional tense: “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.”
But after the architect and the sculptor thought the stone would look better with fewer words, a shortened version was put on, composed of just 10 words with a heavy staccato beat. It was no longer a conditional statement; it was a flat assertion: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”...
Poet and author Maya Angelou, who had worked with King, told The Post that it made him sound like “an arrogant twit.” Martin Luther King III told CNN, “That was not what Dad said.” And Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert called it “to the point. Not Dr. King’s point, but still.”
Rachel Manteuffel, author of the original Post story, concludes:
How sweet, then, that King can still be giving to us on his 83rd birthday, though he lived for only 39 of them. He can give us this story of many different Americans using their tools at hand — celebrity, media, commerce, satire, academia — to ask their government to right a wrong.
And King, a lover of words and a profound symbol to all of us, demanded action. Because of him, at least this time, the system worked.