Rachel Manteuffel works in The Post’s Editorial Department.
Five months ago, in this space, I wrote that something was wrong with the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. The quotation inscribed on the monument’s left flank had been so badly excerpted that a modest statement of King’s was turned into a boast.
At the time, it wasn’t clear how or why this had happened, but what seemed likely, at least to me, was that nothing would be done about it. Things that are etched in stone seldom are changed, especially in Washington, which is not famous for admitting error, righting wrongs, getting things done in a timely fashion, or getting things done at all.
It turns out I was right about the error but wrong about Washington. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told The Post today that the quote will be corrected. He has given the National Park Service 30 days — because “things only happen when you put a deadline on it” — to consult with the King Memorial Foundation, family members and other interested parties and come up with a more accurate alternative.
“This is important because Dr. King and his presence on the Mall is a forever presence for the United States of America, and we have to make sure that we get it right,” Salazar said.
Consider it no small victory for the power of public opinion over the sometimes ponderous inertia of bureaucracy, and also for the power of words — King’s words — to be heard.
“I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” the monument says. What an odd choice for a quote, I thought, when I visited in August before its scheduled dedication. It sounded almost . . . conceited. And it was past tense, as though King was speaking from the grave. It didn’t sound like King at all.
I went looking for the context, read the whole speech and found there was a reason it didn’t sound like him. “If you want to say I was a drum major, say I was . . . ” is how King began his statement. As many have since pointed out, the “if” and the “you” entirely change the meaning. To King, being a self-aggrandizing drum major was not a good thing; if you wanted to call him that, he said, at least say it was in the service of good causes.
Some important people who hadn’t seen the quote yet read the op-ed and agreed. The poet Maya Angelou, who knew and worked with King, said the truncated quote made King seem like “an arrogant twit.” Roy Peter Clark, an expert on the use of words, wrote for CNN, “Everything I’ve learned about the language of enshrinement suggests that the inscription on the King monument should be revised.” Martin Luther King III told CNN: “That was not what Dad said.”
Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert noted that it was “to the point. Not Dr. King’s point, but still. Brevity is the soul of saving money on chiseling fees.”
Even the sidewalk T-shirt vendors chose an image from the memorial’s plans rather than the real thing. Because, it turned out, the original plans included the full, in-context quote. After the plans were approved, the lead architect and the sculptor thought the stone would look better with fewer words. They did the editing themselves, without considering the violence it would do to the quote’s meaning. It was as simple as that.
“I do not think it’s an accurate portrayal of what Dr. King was,” Salazar told us Friday.
How sweet, then, that King can still be giving to us on his 83rd birthday, though he lived for only 39 of them. He can give us this story of many different Americans using their tools at hand — celebrity, media, commerce, satire, academia — to ask their government to right a wrong.
And King, a lover of words and a profound symbol to all of us, demanded action. Because of him, at least this time, the system worked.