It's time to get it right

It's time to get it right

September 5th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

"I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." - something Martin Luther King Jr. never said.

You'd think that distorted quotation would have been removed from the King Memorial in Washington by now. After all, it's drawn protests from civil rights leaders, frowns from the county's talking heads and objections from plain folks -- the kind who know right from wrong. The dubious quote might at least be covered up. Or a sign posted nearby saying something to the effect of, "Our apologies. This is a misquote. We're working to fix it."

It's been a year since the memorial was opened to the public. Some memorial. It doesn't do justice to a man who sought it all his life, right up to its being cut short. The memorial itself, its ugly self, is an esthetic and historical crime. It's a granite behemoth featuring a glowering idol looking down on all who walk by, like some sort of godzilla.

Can this be our Martin Luther King, the black Baptist preacher out of Georgia who prophesied to a whole nation, and roused the conscience of a whole world? It's more an insult to his memory in today's worst, most obvious, most tediously, politically correct fashion.

But what really bothers isn't the menacing, supersized statue. It's the misediting of Dr. King's words. Any writer will tell you how that works. Or rather how it doesn't.

• • •

In what is now known as his Drum Major sermon, the preacher from Georgia started, as is customary, with a Biblical text. In this case, he turned to the Book of Mark -- the chapter in which James and John ask to sit beside Jesus on his right hand and left, in places of honor.

Dr. King called it the "Drum Major Instinct" -- the desire to be recognized, the wanting to be important, the lust for the limelight. It's on display at every political event, especially in election years like this one, as the lesser names on the ballot line up for their photo op with the presidential candidate. To grab a little reflected glory. We all may have to wrestle with that kind of pride, Dr. King said, and it can even be useful -- when it's directed into the right channels. But, he added, the Drum Major Instinct can be dangerous, too.

Toward the end of his sermon, Martin Luther King wondered what people would say at his funeral. As if he knew he didn't have much longer to be here. Maybe his sermon that day was inspired by all those bomb threats. Or the knife through his chest in an earlier assassination attempt. Anybody who'd done what he had all over the country might have seen it coming, after all, he led demonstrations down main streets and back streets, and in the kind of places that weren't very welcoming to outside agitators.

Maybe he just felt a need to set the record straight while he still could. Whatever the immediate inspiration for this sermon, this is what he told those who might be tempted to idolize him after he was gone: Emphasize his ideas, not his person. Or as he put it:

"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."

If you want to say that I was a drum major at all. What he didn't say was this:

"I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

Which of course is just what is now etched in stone on his memorial in the nation's capital. And makes him sound like just the kind of prima donna he was warning folks about.

• • •

Back in January, dispatches said the National Park Service would correct the misquote. But it hasn't. Why the delay? One report says the Park Service is waiting till the end of the tourist season to change the quote.

What for? To maximize its embarrassment? To keep misinforming visitors while it still can? To spend a final summer miseducating the young -- and any innocent tourists who might wander past this pharaonic temple?

It's been a year since the memorial was opened. And a few minutes less than that since the first objections began to come in. It shouldn't take a year even for government to correct this kind of literally monumental mistake. Even if it's etched in stone. Dr. King believed in the urgency of justice, not delaying it. Some might think that was the whole point of his life.