MLK Memorial Displays Inaccuracies

After over 20 years of planning, fundraising and building, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial opened to the public Aug. 22. As visitors enter the memorial, and approach the statue of Dr. King, one side reads “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” a quote attributed to King, but a quote vastly altered from what was actually said.

When King delivered his speech in 1968, he spoke of what he wanted his funeral to be like and simply asked those who spoke not to overemphasize his accomplishments. King told his audience: “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. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.”

It is unacceptable that this memorial honoring an American hero does not honor King’s wishes. Instead, it makes him out to seem like a conceited man when in fact, the original speech was about humility and the dangers of promoting oneself. By abbreviating this quotation, King’s intended message is completely lost.

According to an Aug. 31 NPR interview, Ed Jackson Jr., the memorial’s executive architect, planned for the quote to be placed on the south side of the monument where it would be the first thing visitors see. The designers decided they wanted a different quote to be seen first, and moved the “drum major” quote to the north side, where there was not enough room for King’s lengthy explanation.

After years of planning, quote placements should have been finalized before the memorial was built. Even after designers decided that another quote should be placed on the south side, they should have picked a quote that could be placed in its entirety on the north side. All this confusion and frustration could have been avoided and saved embarrassment for those involved with the memorial.

Jackson also defended his decision by claiming the quote did not make King seem conceited, and that in the context of the 14 other quotes at the memorial, the “drum major” one fits right in.

This defense is absolutely ludicrous. A quote should not be changed so that it fits well with the rest. It should be accurate to honestly represent who it is honoring. If the memorial is attributing these words to King, then the words should be his own.

So far there are no plans to change the inscription on the memorial. However, if people are to come to the memorial for generations to learn about the great work of Dr. King, they deserve a memorial that accurately represents what King stood for, a quote representing a humble pioneer, not a pretentious fool.