published Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Get the words right

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Monument in Washington rightly joins the monuments that honor great men and women and that commemorate important events in the nation's history. Indeed, its dedication earlier this year was a signal moment for a nation once so divided that many Americans initially rejected King's demand for equality for all. Those who visit the monument, though, are likely to be puzzled, even upset, by one of the quotations carved into the stone.

One of the several quotes does not accurately reflect what King said. It is, in fact, a paraphrase that is so far off the mark that those who know King and his work think it should be corrected. Maya Angelou, for instance, says the current wording makes King sound like "an arrogant twit." She's not alone in that opinion.

So many people have raised objections to the paraphrase that the National Park Service is considering whether the phrase should be replaced by a more accurate transcription of King's words. The review should decide in the affirmative. There's really no other choice.

The phrase currently reads, "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness," a boastful self-serving phrase by any definition. Trouble is, King never said that. He said something far more humble and meaningful in the context of the time in which he lived. His words were, "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." The difference in the paraphrase and an accurate quote is immense.

The former is a bald statement of self-importance. The latter makes it clear that King served a higher purpose, that if he were a drum major it would be in the cause of important issues rather than in search of self-aggrandizement.

The lead architect of the monument says used the paraphrase rather than the full quote so it would fit in a certain space. It now seems that he ordered the change without proper authority, and without telling the federal agencies in charge of national monuments that he was going to alter the plan and design for the monument. Whether that was purposeful or not does not matter now.

What does matter is that the inscription accurately recount King's words. The Park Service should honor that mission.

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