THE DEDICATION of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, postponed from August, has been rescheduled for Oct. 16. That date should be moved forward again, unless the ceremony includes a pledge to correct the embarrassingly misleading quotation on the side of the Stone of Hope.
The quote — “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness” — sounds jarringly immodest, particularly since it was excerpted from a sermon that King delivered about the folly of prideful bombast. The reason for this dissonance is that, in a misguided effort at concision, the words were pulled out of context. The full quotation was conditional; King did not claim these qualities but said that, if others insisted on calling him a leader, he hoped it would be in the service of those noble causes. That’s a big difference.
The poet Maya Angelou, who knew King, asserts that the ham-handed editing makes the civil rights leader sound like “an arrogant twit.” She called for the monument to be reengraved. She’s right.
What makes this matter even more troubling is that the distortion apparently took place without meaningful review. The secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, Thomas Luebke, revealed in a letter to The Post that the commission never approved this truncation of the quote, as had been asserted by Ed Jackson Jr., the memorial’s chief architect. A spokesman for the National Parks Service told us it had not been notified of the editing either. “We were neither informed nor consulted about this abbreviated quote, and we believe we should have been,” said the spokesman, Bill Line. We tried to ask Mr. Jackson about this, but he has not returned our calls.
Meanwhile, the botched quotation, first noted in an op-ed by The Post’s Rachel Manteuffel, has become something of a national laughingstock. Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert recently suggested that if Washington was willing to subordinate accuracy to brevity, we might as well truncate the quote even more, reducing it to “I was a drum major” — and then put a funny hat on the statue’s head. “Hey,” Mr. Colbert deadpanned, “he did lead a march.”
In today’s poisonous, polarized political atmosphere, it sometimes seems as if monuments and memorials are the only thing Washington still does well. Are we willing to abandon even that? In this case, “chiseled in stone” does not mean — or should not mean — unchangeable.
Generations of Americans will learn about the Rev. King from this monument. What they learn should be correct and not demean the memory of a great man. The memorial’s Web site is still soliciting donations, with this quotation: “the time is always ripe to do what is right.” Time to find out if those words have any power left.