The Pulse: Here's an easy fix for King monument quote

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Mall in Washington could be fixed in time for King's birthday next year.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Mall in Washington could be fixed in time for King's birthday next year. (JACQUELYN MARTIN / Associated Press)
Posted: March 04, 2012

I thought I had an easy fix to a National Park Service conundrum. At issue is the newly unveiled Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington and a quote etched on the Stone of Hope: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

In August, Rachel Manteuffel of the Washington Post opined that the quote "makes King look like something he was not: an arrogant jerk." She said the quote was "awfully self-aggrandizing for a man who so often symbolized the strength in humility."

Worse, it is not what King actually said.

The origin of the quote is a speech King delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1968, two months before he was assassinated. King's remarks were really about the inner drum major in all of us. He spoke of a human desire to be out front but cautioned as to how that impetus can be misguided and used for ill purpose. In other words, it's important to be a drum major for a worthy cause. After sounding that theme, he said:

"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."

Supposedly, for space considerations, those words became "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness" on the new monument.

How did it happen? Congress authorized the Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation to design and build the memorial, as is necessary when a project on the National Mall is undertaken. The foundation decided on the design and worked with a number of historians to determine the quotes that would be used. The initial design contained the full "drum major" quote. After the plan was approved by the National Park Service, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the U.S. Fine Arts Commission, a permit was issued. But the foundation then decided to paraphrase the quote.

Ed Jackson, chief architect of the memorial, defended the quote to Elizabeth Blair of NPR, saying the abridged version captures "the essence of the statement." Jackson also noted that visitors to the memorial did see much longer quotes from King as they approached the statue.

"By the time the visitor engages with the Stone of Hope, the profile of Dr. King, they're beyond the point where they're interested in reading a lot of detail," Jackson told Blair.

But the kerfuffle continued, and now, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced there will be a fix. The question is, how? Will the portion of stone bearing the quote be replaced with something that (hopefully) matches and is a more accurate representation of what King said, or is it possible to reduce the surface and recarve?

To me it's a no-brainer. Simply take off the quotation marks and replace I with He, so the side of the monument would read: He was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.

That would seem to defuse the argument that the truncated quote takes King out of context and sounds self-serving. In its place would be a flattering statement about King based on his own words. And, presumably, this fix would not only be the most honest, but the cheapest.

According to Carol Bradley Johnson, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, I was not the first to propose this solution. "Although your idea of changing the 'I' to 'He' was considered, ultimately a decision was made not to go that way because it would not be Dr. King's words, which the family thought was very important," she told me in an e-mail. "And although changing the 'I' to a 'He' may seem like an easy fix, changing one word would be more obvious than cutting the stone along the joint lines and re-engraving."

In the end, as Salazar announced, the misquote would be replaced with the exact quote.

It's a logical, though seemingly more expensive, solution. Somebody is now on the hook for replacing the stones bearing the paraphrased quote. The Park Service hopes philanthropic support will enable the completion of the work in time for the celebration of King's birthday in January 2013.

I'd have preferred the simpler fix, preserving as much of the original design as possible.

A guy can dream, right?


Contact Michael Smerconish at www.smerconish.com. Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.

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