Sunday, September 4, 2011

MLK Jr: A "drum major for justice"?

When we visited the MLK Jr Memorial last Wednesday, I could not help but be put off by the quote that appears on the statue's left, which reads "I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness." It seems out of place with the more humble and highly principled quotes of Dr. King's that are inscribed throughout the memorial.

Maya Angelou, popular author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and a consultant for the memorial, was also baffled by the quote that she believes makes King sound like an egoist. How did this fairly misleading quote become inscribed on the memorial? The problem is that the inscription is not actually a real quote. The engraving in question was paraphrased from a few sentences in one of King's sermons that were planned to be inscribed on the statue. A design change forced the planners to shorten the inscription and paraphrase the original wording.

In the real quote, King was speaking about the contents of a possible eulogy to be given at his funeral:

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.

Angelou contends that the elimination of the "if" clause in the paraphrased version changes the character of King's original words.

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