December 11, 2012

Alas, poor drum-major quote. You were too long and contextual for this abbreviated world:

“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 the other shallow things will not matter.”


The troublesome abridgement (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

That’s what Martin Luther King Jr. said, at the end of a long, famous speech to Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1968. It’s an odd choice for a quote, in isolation. In the speech, he defined his terms and made clear why an unspecified  “you” might want to call him a drum major, or a show-off, disparagingly. What got carved into the Martin Luther King Memorial, however, was an odd truncation that seemed to show arrogance:

“I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

Earlier this year, for King’s birthday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he would correct the monument to show the full quote; on Tuesday he amended that decision, saying he now plans to “remove” the words entirely from the statue’s side. It’s not what the quote-selecting committee chose — they wanted the full quote — and it’s not the current mangled paraphrase of King’s statement. It’s probably the right decision.  

I get to opine because I was the first to publicly notice the quote was wrong, over a year ago, in an op-ed piece for The Post.   

There wasn’t an excellent way out of this problem once the architect decided, without the requisite authority, to edit the quote down for aesthetic reasons. Indeed, it probably wasn’t a good choice for excerpting on the side of a monument, even unedited. It’s a long, unwieldy quote. King is telling us what he hoped other people would say about him someday, using “I” to mean not himself but a potential memory of him, conditioned upon characterizing him as some sort of drum major. And he wasn’t fond of drum majors, who thrust themselves front and center, for the glory. Hard to summarize that quickly. I couldn’t, just now. It’s simply not a soundbite.  It’s the conclusion to a speech, a great one, that takes as long as he took to say it.  Read the speech.  Here it is. Or listen.  That’s the way to memorialize King.