Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was anything but an “arrogant twit.” Yet Dr. Maya Angelou called it entirely correctly when she said that one of the quotes engraved on the side of the new memorial to Dr. King portrays the man as a braggart, not the humble servant leader that he was. “I was a drum major for justice”, the memorial reads. The actual “drum major” speech is a profound speech about the herd instinct that many human beings have, much to their detriment.
As part of a herd, we often buy what we can’t afford, put on airs that serve no purpose, and fail to speak up when it is unpopular with the crowd. Dr. King said, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. Say I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” Maybe that full quote was too long for the slab of stone, but the “if” clause is extremely important to its meaning. Dr. Angleou, a personal friend of Dr. King’s, raises her voice representing so many when she says the out of context quote does not do Dr. King’s message justice.
I am amazed at the glib excuse for editing the quote, because of “space constraints.” Find another quote that fits better into the space, instead of mangling one and taking a civil rights icon’s message out of context, changing the meaning, intent, and spirit of the “drum major” speech.
I am also bothered at the response some of the King memorial leaders had for Dr. Angelou. “She didn’t come to meetings,” said one, implying that absence is consent. Did she ever get the minutes? Was there a vote? Executive architect Ed Jackson Jr., says they ran the change by an oversight group, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and “they didn’t have a problem with it.” I’d like to know whether this group’s major concern is aesthetics or historical accuracy. Dr. Maya Angelou’s principled stance is appropriate.
Many of us may know the correct quote and its context, but many do not. A generation from now, when millions of people from all over the world are coming to visit the monument, will the quote show Dr. King and his message in its full authenticity? This is the only monument on the National Mall that lifts up an African American. It is a tremendous accomplishment. It ought to be correct. I can already hear someone say “don’t sweat the small stuff. A quote out of context is no small thing, especially when it alters the meaning of the message.
My grandmother is not the only elder who made young’uns cringe when she railed, “If you are going to do something, then do it right.”
I sure hope the folks who made quote decisions had those kinds of grandmothers. Then they would understand that Dr. Maya Angelou is simply an advocate for historical accuracy, for Dr. King’s dignity, and for a monument that fully reflects the years of dedication, commitment, and effort that have gone into it. Do it right. Fix the quote. Don’t take Dr. King out of context.