November 13, 2011

THE DEDICATION OF the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial was a beautiful and proud moment for the United States. Now Americans will begin the process of getting to know their newest monument, visiting by day and night, meditating on the words carved in stone.

We hope before that process goes much further, though, a meaningful flaw in the monument will be fixed. As we’ve noted before, one King quotation has been paraphrased to the point of total distortion. A spokesman for the National Park Service told us it has begun a review process to evaluate if the paraphrase is a mistake worth fixing. The service hopes to finish its review by the end of the year.

It shouldn’t be a hard call. Maya Angelou has said the distortion makes the Rev. King sound like “an arrogant twit.” Martin Luther King III recently told CNN that he agrees with Ms. Angelou and that he is under the impression the monument will definitely get recarved to show the whole quote. “It’s going to be corrected,” he told Fredricka Whitfield, adding, “That was not what Dad said.” Mr. King seems to have inside information, or at least his statements make it very difficult for the King Memorial Foundation to leave the monument as it is.

“I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness” is chiseled into the memorial’s Stone of Hope, on the Rev. King’s left. What he actually said, in an Atlanta sermon (on humility, as it happens) in 1968: “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.” Those quotes present wildly opposite impressions of the speaker. One tenders inflated claims of importance and achievement. The sermon, by contrast, expressed the humbler hope that others would not see the Rev. King as a drum major — a self-promoter, in other words — but that if they did, at least it would be in the service of the noblest of causes.  There’s a reason only one of those speakers sounds like the Rev. King.

As of September 2010, the monument plans included the full drum major quote. Ed Jackson Jr., the lead architect of the project, told this newspaper he made “design changes on the spot” to shorten the quote; he appears not to have alerted the three federal agencies that oversee national memorials. It is a relief to see that the second decision to change the inscription is getting longer and more careful consideration than did the first.