Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Set in stone? Misquoting Martin Luther King Jr

with 11 comments

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...Here, writ large, are the perils of editing.

For ‘reasons of space’ a Martin Luther King Jr quote carved into a new memorial in Washington was amended to read:

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

But King actually said this:

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.

The words are part of a sermon given in 1968, shortly before his death. The poet Maya Angelou said the shortened version made King sound like ‘an arrogant twit’. And its general tenor is all the more misleading because King’s humility is evident in the sermon, for example, here:

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long.

And he also spoke at length about the ‘drum major instinct’ being potentially ‘destructive’. The sermon should be read in full.

I am fascinated by this because it illustrates the power of words and how changing, rearranging and truncating can emasculate, enervate and distil into meaninglessness (or a different meaning altogether). All subtlety is lost.

Here’s my take on it:

Note King’s initial use of the word ‘yes’. In the overall context here it sounds more like a judicial pause for thought than an affirmation. Then, after the comma, he uses that all-important word ‘if’ (he makes no assumptions) followed by ‘you’. Note the contrast with the categorical, unthinking and egotistical ‘I’ which kicks off the truncated version.

Having considered the idea that others may want to deem him a drum major, he moves from hesitancy to embrace the term (using it three times), as if to say, ‘I’ll work with what I’ve got’, but taking care to define its application. His definition places the emphasis on noble ideas and aspirations: not himself. And still, he makes it clear that it is others who may want to say these things, not the ‘I’ of the inaccurately quoted version.

Also missing from the inaccurate version is the hypnotic rhythm of the repetition and the power of the concluding thought, which gives further depth and perspective to the preceding lines.

Thankfully, the inscription is to be amended. Not all things set in stone are set in stone.

The power of three


11 Responses

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  1. More, I suspect, a case of CBA than lack of space – that obelisk seems to have a huge flat surface at the side, easily refinished for carving . . .


    14/01/2012 at 3:05 pm

    • Hi, Ron — yes, the lack of space argument does seem rather strange. I had to look up ‘CBA’. The butler, looking over my shoulder as I googled, patiently explained that you weren’t referring to the Council for British Archaeology.


      14/01/2012 at 3:11 pm

  2. I did read about this a month or so ago, when several columnists were expressing similar sentiments to yours, Deborah. There have also been other gaffes during the construction of recent additions of public art in that city. It’s only my guess, but I think it the Chinese sculptor’s non-fluency in English was a factor. For one thing, it’s not a well-known example of King’s sermons compared to many others for which he’s better remembered. For another, King looks like a Star Wars character emerging from carbonite, or a comic book superhero. It’s a sort of “price-reduced” version of a memorial, made with less skill, and also less of a burden in a hard economy.

    Invisible Mikey

    14/01/2012 at 3:05 pm

    • Hi, Mikey

      I hadn’t previously heard about this; I came across it this morning in the Guardian. Either the story hasn’t wended its way to our shores yet, or I just missed it previously (the words ‘finger’ and ‘pulse’ don’t necessarily come to mind here). I didn’t know the sculptor was Chinese; as you say, that could explain it, but not why the amended quote was sanctioned. I don’t like the sculpture either; I don’t think I would have known it was him (judging from the photo).

      Thanks, Mikey


      14/01/2012 at 3:19 pm

      • I doubt the sculptor’s nationality was a factor, Deborah and Mikey. After all, he just copies what he’s given – he doesn’t even have to speak the language.

        Blowing the pic up to its max of 3648 x 2736 pixels (on Wikipedia), it’s identifiably King, but it’s remarkably crude in its execution.


        14/01/2012 at 3:49 pm

  3. For me, too, it’s the loss of the hypnotic rhythm of the repetition, as you said so well, Deborah.
    Since King was a preacher and noted orator, it seems, at best, a shame to miss out on the power of his oratory.

    Maggie Manning

    17/01/2012 at 7:44 pm

    • Hi, Maggie, and thank you. Yes, the more I think about it, the more strange it seems that his words were changed so much. It’s very good news that the quote is to be amended.The story inspired me to read a couple of his more famous speeches again: powerful stuff.Thanks again, Maggie. It’s always good to see you here.


      17/01/2012 at 8:03 pm

  4. I had no idea about the misquote. Sad, actually.


    16/02/2012 at 1:39 am

    • Hi, Jean

      Welcome to Wordwatch and thanks for commenting. Yes, I agree. Hopefully it will be put right.


      16/02/2012 at 6:32 am

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