A few days ago the Washington Post published an article about the Park Service’s decision to erase some words carved in stone on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and replace them with something more apt and accurate.
The offending inscription, the article reports,
comes from a powerful, difficult-to-distill sermon King delivered two months before he was assassinated in 1968. Speaking to the congregation of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, King critiqued the “drum major instinct,” shorthand for a showboat who leads the parade. Imagining his own eulogy, King made it clear he wanted to be remembered for a higher purpose.
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King said. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all the other shallow things will not matter.”
When carved into granite on the north face of the memorial’s centerpiece, a 30-foot-tall statue of King emerging from a huge block of stone, the sentiment was edited from 46 words to 10, to fit the space available: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.
Many of King’s admirers were justifiably offended. Author and poet Maya Angelou, for example, said it made King sound like “an arrogant twit.” Bowing to the pressure, the Park Service has ordered a revision.
There is, I think, a serious problem with quotes (or abbreviated paraphrases) on the Memorial, but the poor “drum major” disaster is the least of them. Following is a letter to the editor that the Post’s editors chose not to publish:
The park service may be about to erase and replace the words “written in stone” on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial (Metro, Feb. 11, B1), but the controversy over the inapt “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness” mis-quote does not begin to address the real monumental error.
There are fourteen other quotations engraved on the Memorial’s Wall of Quotes, but not King’s most justly celebrated words, from his August 1963 speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The omission of that dream, presumably because of its politically incorrect rebuke to “race conscious” affirmative action, is as glaring as a memorial to Patrick Henry that did not inscribe “Give me liberty or give me death!”; to the revolutionary hero Nathan Hale that did not display his last words, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country”; to FDR that did not quote his “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” or “This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.”
John S. Rosenberg