The beautiful and imposing Martin Luther King Jr. monument sits on the National Mall, with the quote in question visible from the Southwest view (see image). The inscribed quote is actually a paraphrase, and has inspired controversy since prior to the dedication of the monument.
The inscription currently reads:
“I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
Rachel Manteuffel, of the Washington Post:
“When I looked up the King quote, I found that the sin was actually worse than simply shoe-horning in an uncharacteristically immodest statement. The quote carved into the memorial on the Mall is not what Martin Luther King Jr. said. This is the equivalent of a Hollywood publicist pulling four words out of context from a newspaper review to make a bad film seem good. Except in this case, it’s the reverse: It takes the good out of context and makes it bad.”
The actual quote, from a sermon Martin Luther King Jr. gave at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in1968, was as follows:
“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 paraphrased quote is clearly incorrect, and inadequate even as a paraphrase, and changes entirely the meaning of what Dr. King actually said, and thus the righteous controversy. Maya Angelou to the Washington Post:
“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit...It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was...It makes him seem an egotist." She also pointed out, "The 'if' clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has now ordered that the paraphrase be removed and that the quote be correctly inscribed, with the goal for completion set to be by Dr. King’s birthday in January 2013.
Kudos to the Obama administration, and to Secretary Salazar in particular, for ordering this rightful correction to the monument of an American hero to be made.