Imagine if someone took one of your quotes and decided to edit it. This person not only edited the quote, but also changed the very essence of its meaning. I would be (to put it mildly and in a way that refrains from obscenities) more than a little unhappy.
I am sure Martin Luther King, Jr. would also be more than a little unhappy to find out that people decided to do that very thing to one of his quotes. It wasn’t just published, and it wasn’t just misspoken, it was carved in stone in Kings’ monument.
The monument serves as a link between the Jefferson Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The Memorial address is 1964 Independence Ave, SW, Washington, D.C., 20024. The street number references the Civil Right’s Act of 1964 in which King was a pivotal figure.
This monument was carefully planned out, even to its address, which makes the misquoting even more heinous.
The quote on the monument reads, “I Was a Drum Major for Justice, Peace, and Righteousness.” This is a paraphrased version of another quote, whose wording is similar, but the changes create a very different reaction.
In the context of the actual quote, King is speaking about how he would like people to remember him when he died. “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others … I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.” He then goes on to say, and this is the part of the quote that they adapted for the monument, “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 is one of King’s best quotes and coincidentally one of my personal favorites. And its changing is not only disrespectful to King, one of the most eloquent orators of recent times, but it also is misrepresenting him. The quote, as it stands, makes King sound as if he is tooting his own horn. That he is raising himself up as a drum major. Instead, in the original quote, he is humbling himself and his own effect on the social changes he worked for.
It has taken several months for the people in charge of the monument to respond to the choppy and horribly misguided editing of the quote. Finally, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has ordered for it to be changed. However, the entire quote can’t fit on the monument and the current inscription is chiseled into the stone. The replacement will still be a paraphrase, and changing it will be horribly tedious and difficult. Officials haven’t commented on how they will correct this yet.
There is a lesson to be learned from this ridiculousness. When someone has spoken as many beautiful and iconic words as King, they don’t need an editor.