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Park Service to fix MLK quote

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ordered the National Park Service to correct a botched quote etched in stone at the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial.

This is a welcome development, both for writing and for history. As I noted on this blog in August, people who know and understand Dr. King’s life thought the edited quote on his monument badly distorted his message.

The controversial inscription reads, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

In fact, King’s actual words in a 1968 sermon “The Drum Major Instinct” were less boastful and more nuanced. He said,

“There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive. … If it isn’t harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. … 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.”

The Washington Post has been an important voice in drawing attention to the error on the monument, and opinion writer Rachel Manteuffel first noted the planned change on Friday. CNN also reported on the change. It’s unclear how the Park Service will fix the quote, but they reportedly have 30 days to figure it out.

Even with this one quote fixed, the notion of inscribing King’s words in stone is foolish. It feels like an attempt to freeze his message in time and move on. As if our society wants to package the Civil Rights movement as a piece of well-regarded history, rather than a radical movement that’s still ongoing. I have not extensively studied Dr. King’s writing the way some have, but I’m pretty sure he was committed to constantly moving forward. He didn’t lay out a series of concrete rules; he challenged people to renew the fight for justice every day.

Today we have laws guaranteeing equal rights for people without regard to race, which is progress. But there’s more to do. We still have tens of millions of children in America who lack adequate food, education and health care, simply because of the situation into which they are born. We have enough money and resources in America that no child should be hungry, or denied a good education, or denied a doctor when sick, and yet it’s happening to your neighbors right now.

King’s work isn’t done. Is it any wonder we run into problems when we cast his words in stone?

Photo: Gerritt Lang

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under News & Journalism, Politics

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