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Martin Luther King, Jr.: Who misquoted King so monumentally?

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says a key quote on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial must be changed. Poet Maya Angelou had said it makes the civil rights leader sound ‘like an arrogant twit.’

By Staff writer / January 14, 2012

A part of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is seen on the National Mall in Washington. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ordered that a controversial truncated quote be changed.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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ATLANTA

As America gets ready to take Monday off in honor of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., the creators of the new MLK Monument in Washington will be thinking about how to fix what some have called a monumental misquote on the granite edifice.

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At issue is a prominent quote on the side of the memorial that now states, “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.” The problem, as MLK's son pointed out in a CNN interview, is, “That's not what Dad said.”

While the quote comes off as a boast, the actual line uttered by MLK in a speech a month before his April 4, 1968, assassination in Memphis had a different tone.

“If you want to say I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace…,” King said, putting a less self-congratulatory spin on it.

The mistake not only makes King sound like “an arrogant twit,” as the poet Maya Angelou said last year, but undermines King's point in the so-called “Drum-Major Instinct” sermon, which was about the “folly” of wanting “to be great without doing any great, difficult things.”

“As many have since pointed out, the 'if' and the 'you' entirely change the meaning,” writes the Washington Post's Rachel Manteuffel, whose editorial on the mistake started the correction process churning. “To King, being a self-aggrandizing drum major was not a good thing; if you wanted to call him that, he said, at least say it was in the service of good causes.”

On Friday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department oversees the National Mall, gave the King Memorial Foundation 30 days to come up with an alternative excerpt for the north side of the 30-foot-tall statue. “This is important because Dr. King and his presence on the Mall is a forever presence for the United States of America, and we have to make sure that we get it right,” Salazar told the Post.

Salazar also addressed the issue during a Monitor breakfast before the Oct. 16, 2011 dedication of the sculpture. “I looked at the quote," he said. "I looked at all the other quotes. It is a wonderful memorial. But there are some issues that we will resolve and we will work on them ..."

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