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.’

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
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.

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.

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 ..."

What appears to have happened is Lei Yixin, the Chinese master sculptor commissioned to create the monument, and the monument's American inscription carver, Nick Benson, had an aesthetic problem they wanted to solve by shortening the quote. The change was made after the official plans of the monument were unveiled, meaning that the Interior Department and other supervisory committees had no input.

“After the plans were approved, the lead architect and the sculptor thought the stone would look better with fewer words,” writes Ms. Manteuffel. “They did the editing themselves, without considering the violence it would do to the quote’s meaning. It was as simple as that.”

Before the monument was officially unveiled last October, the monument's executive architect, Ed Jackson, Jr., defended the editing. He said that the full quote wouldn't fit in the space, and noted that “we have the historical perspective. We can say emphatically he was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

Mr. Salazar's demand that the quote be changed feeds into a simmering controversy about how the monument was made, and by whom.

Mr. Yixin, for example, is known for his socialist realist sculptures of Mao Zedong, the brutal founder of Communist China. That fact raised the ire of Chinese civil rights activists and the American stonecarving community, whose spokesmen said American workers should have been commissioned for the project. Subsequently, some observers have noted that King's image looks slightly Asian, and others have complained about his stern visage, which critics have said doesn't reflect King's character.

“There's no reason that an American story can't be told by Americans,” South Carolina stoneworker Clint Button told the Monitor last year. “Even if we did a statue that looked horrendous, it would be done with integrity and with the intention of American tone and an American story, and a proper interpretation of history.”

Supporters of the monument disagreed. They say the $120 million sculpture represents both King's global vision of raising hopes for the repressed and the practical realities of cost and manufacturing. The Foundation paid the King family $800,000 for rights to use quotes from King's archives.

“Brevity is the soul of saving money on chiseling fees,” Comedy Central comedian Stephen Colbert concluded last year, mangling Shakespeare.

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