“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.”
“The Drum Major Instinct" Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr -
This is the full context of a quote that has indeed become controversial at the MLK Memorial in Washington DC. On the statue (a centerpiece of the memorial) this is what has been inscribed: I was a Drum Major for Justice, Peace and Righteousness
By reading the two quotes side by side one can conclude that these are two very different and distinct meanings. The problem is that the latter is not a quote from Dr. King. Over the weekend, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the quote will be corrected. I, for one, am pleased. As a September 1 Washington Post editorial
The words on the monument, edited not by a historian but by an architect concerned about space, are a ham-handed truncation of what Dr. King said, turning a conditional statement into a boast. The sermon is complex and open to interpretation, but one thing is clear: Dr. King does not claim to be a drum major for anything. The whole speech, in fact, is about the evils of self-promotion.
“The Drum-Major Instinct,” which Dr. King delivered on Feb. 4, 1968, is about the folly of wanting to feel important, of seeking recognition and praise. That is a basic human impulse, he said, but it is dangerous and can lead to many social ills, including bigotry: “A lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct, a need that some people have to feel that they are first and feel that their white skin ordained them to be first.”
Dr. King was speaking to the dangers of arrogance. He was speaking about doing what is right instead of finding the need to be at the front of the line, as drum majors tend to be. As Poet Maya Angelou
, a friend of Dr. King said:
“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” Angelou, 83, said Tuesday. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.
“He had no arrogance at all,” she said. “He had a humility that comes from deep inside. The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
The paraphrase “minimizes the man,” she said. “It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was. . . . It makes him seem an egotist.”
For some the paraphrase might not seem a big deal, but it is true that his words were taken out of context for the memorial. There's something sad about. Considering the very nature of "The Drum Major instinct
" speech, one could debate if Dr. King would be comfortable with memorial even existing. However, there's something wonderful to be said when an error is corrected. It might only be a few words forgotten, but those few words can change an entire meaning. Rachel Manteuffel
, an editor for WaPo has long been writing of this error and upon hearing of the correction said something that really touched me.
“I do not think it’s an accurate portrayal of what Dr. King was,” Salazar told us Friday.
How sweet, then, that King can still be giving to us on his 83rd birthday, though he lived for only 39 of them. He can give us this story of many different Americans using their tools at hand — celebrity, media, commerce, satire, academia — to ask their government to right a wrong.
And King, a lover of words and a profound symbol to all of us, demanded action. Because of him, at least this time, the system worked.
In a desire to save space, a monumental error was committed. I'm glad this one will be fixed. On this day, let us all remember the power of not just Dr. Kings words, but ours as well. Words matter today and in the future. Words last far longer than we do. Long after we have left, our words, what we have said and how we attempted to communicate -- will remain. While we are here, let it be our responsibility to use words carefully-- to speak truth and honesty. Let us use words to help give a voice for those that have none. I believe that in doing so, we honor those that have gone before us. In doing so, we remember a legacy and not just a few quotes here and there. We remember a person, a movement, a piece of history that will give voice to others.