September 1, 2011

LAST MONTH, Hurricane Irene forced the indefinite postponement of the official dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. The delay could prove fortuitous if the people in charge use the added time to do some erasure and re-inscription of the quotation on the side of the main sculpture — and this time get it right.  

The quotation reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” On first reading, it seems an odd choice, both for its obscurity — “I have a dream,” for example, is nowhere in the monument — but also its inscrutability. What did Dr. King mean by “drum major”? Without context, this part of the monument is baffling. 

With context, as a column by The Post’s Rachel Manteuffel on the opposite page last week made clear, it gets worse. Read the 5,000-word sermon from which the quote was taken, and you find that the import is almost the opposite of what the civil rights leader intended. 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 argued that the instinct can be harnessed for noble ends, but only by doing good works and not by seeking accolades for doing them. Notably, he sought no such accolade himself. “If you want to say I was a drum major,” he said, “say that I was a drum major for justice.” Remove that “if” — as the architects of the monument did — and you are perversely left with the sort of bragging that Dr. King decried.

The poet Maya Angelou, who knew Dr. King, told The Post this week that the misquote makes King look like an “arrogant twit” and called for it to be changed, at whatever the cost. We agree. Generations of Americans are going to learn about this hero by what they see when they visit his monument. It is not too much to ask that what they learn be right.