A Drum-Major Misquote

On this MLK Day, there was finally a place in the District where you could pay your respects to the fallen civil rights hero.

Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Statue

King’s thirty-foot granite statue now stands prominently on the Tidal Basin, in sight of monuments and memorials to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.

It was unveiled last fall, in a ceremony postponed because of the arrival of Hurricane Irene.

But that wasn’t the only storm to hit the memorial – there was also a firestorm of criticism over a monumental misquote carved on the north side of King’s statue.

“I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

When I first read that quote during a tour of the memorial, it struck me as a little odd. It seemed uncharacteristically boastful – not at all like something Martin Luther King, Jr. would say or write.

And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

It turns out that the quote was very badly excerpted from King’s 1968 speech “The Drum-Major Instinct,” delivered exactly two months before his assassination in Memphis.

The point of the speech was to refute the human instinct for self-aggrandizement, and to say that King had never intended to play the superficial role of drum major for civil rights.

But if that’s the role that some people insisted on ascribing to him, he wanted to make clear that his leadership was all dedicated to the greater good:

“Yes, 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. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

Pretty much the opposite of the impression you get when you read the excerpted quote.

MLK Statue - Drum Major Quote
A drum-major misquote (Photo: Historic District)

To quote Rick Perry:  “Oops.”

As soon as the memorial was unveiled last year, a number of scholars and associates of King spoke out against the quote, including the likes of Maya Angelou.

This isn’t the first time that D.C. memorials have played fast and loose with famous inscriptions. The Jefferson Memorial excerpts its quotes from our third president quite liberally, even piecing together single sentences from several different Jeffersonian texts.

One quote from Jefferson about the need to end slavery leaves out the very next sentence, where he expresses doubt that blacks and whites could ever live together in the same country. Pretty much the opposite of what King stands for on the other side of the Tidal Basin.

The King misquote, however, is one that doesn’t appear to be set in stone.

Last Friday, the Department of the Interior announced that the National Park Service has thirty days to fix the quote.

So just as the District’s Joan of Arc statue recently received a new sword for her 600th birthday, it looks like  Martin Luther King Jr. is going to get his original words restored for what would have been his eighty-third birthday.

In the District, it turns out that the pen is just as mighty as the sword.

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