Several controversies have dogged the opening of the new Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C., stoked in part by news media that thrive off controversy. Thoughtful critics such as Phillip Kennicott in the Washington Post and Edward Rothstein in the New York Times have panned it.
The latest controversy comes by way of the Washington Post and Maya Angelou, who objected to one of the two main inscriptions on either side of King’s collosal statue: “I was a drum major for justice peace and righteousness.” The problem is that King never uttered these words. They are an editorial invention, cutting and mixing from a sermon King delivered on February 4, 1968 on the theme of the “drum major instinct.”
King’s sermon is itself adapted from another sermon published in the 1950s by J. Wallace Hamilton, but he takes Hamilton’s theme and makes it his own. King’s version at first reminds his listeners that everyone has this instinct for recognition and self-importance; we are all in some sense selfish. But then he goes on to say that the instinct can get out of control and become destructive, leading to all kinds of tragic consequences including classism and racism.
When nations themselves engage in it, the results can be just as disastrous. He has some harsh words to say about the U.S. in particular. “God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.”
Finally, he looks ahead to his own death and funeral, and tells the church how he would like to be remembered. “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.” And so on. Until he comes to the words that have gotten mixed up on his memorial:
“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 of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.”
Angelou and the Post‘s own editorial writers object to the monument’s editing because it has so drastically altered the meaning of the words, and without the context of the sermon King’s own point gets entirely lost. I think they are right.
I’d say doubly right because the inscription, beginning with the pronoun I, sets up an expectation that King actually spoke these words. The quotations on the black granite wall behind the statue do stick faithfully to King’s words, so there is no reason to think that the inscription on the statue’s side should be any different. We expect the words to represent King’s authentic voice.
The Post advocates that the inscription should be altered “whatever the cost.” That is very unlikely to happen, but in the meantime the controversy might actually accomplish something if it drives people to read King’s original sermon. For many the encounter with his own words will be eye-opening.
For more on the memorial, see the PBS News Hour segment on it, which features this author in his own minor drum-major role. And for an excellent study of King’s words and sources, see Keith D. Miller, Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources.