OUR OPINION: Fix MLK monument for history’s sake

By NEMS Daily Journal

The striking and heavily visited new Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial in Washington will see its first MLK birthday commemoration in less than two weeks, and thousands are almost certain to visit.
Those reading the inscriptions on the major statue of King, however, will not read a correct quote of one of his principal declarations about the ethical content of civil rights.
The incorrect quote, a mangled and mishandled version of what he actually said, has been known for months, but nothing has been done by federal officials to correct the architect’s mistake.
“A long and nuanced statement by King’s decrying egotism and self-promotion wound up, perversely, as a boast: ‘I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,’ the memorial now says,” The Washington Post reported in an editorial.
“The words, edited not by a historian but by an architect concerned about space, are a truncation turning a conditional statement into a boast. The sermon is complex and open to interpretation, but one thing is clear: Dr. King does not claim to be a drum major for anything. The whole speech, in fact, is about the evils of self-promotion,” The Post continued.
“The Drum-Major Instinct,” delivered on Feb. 4, 1968, is about the folly of wanting to feel important, of seeking recognition and praise. That is a basic and dangerous human impulse, he said.
“A lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct, a need that some people have to feel that they are first and feel that their white skin ordained them to be first,” he said in the sermon.
The monument’s inscription destroys that meaning.
King actually said, “If you want to say I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.” Removing the “if” is a perversion.
The poet Maya Angelou, who knew Dr. King, told The Post that the misquote makes King look like an “arrogant twit” and called for it to be changed.
We agree.
King is the most important figure in the civil rights movement, the iconic hero of the 20th century struggle for justice and equal rights under law that had been promised but never fulfilled.
The federal Interior Department inexplicably has yet to decide how it will make right what is clearly incorrect and distortive.
The decision should be simple: Fix it. Make it right. Make it accurate.
The decision seems such a clearly easy one. No wonder people trust the government less and less with the hard decisions.

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