Since the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. was unveiled, one quote in the presentation caused an uproar from the beginning. On the Stone of Hope are inscribed the words “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” I’m glad to hear that the Interior Department is moving to change the quote.
I thought the quote was an abomination to the legacy of Dr. King. I know that’s a pretty strong statement, but there are two reasons the quote affected me so deeply.
First, I feel very close to the memorial since Alpha Phi Alpha played a key role in its construction. Secondly, in the days of my youth I was given the task of reciting Dr. King’s 1968 speech The Drum Major Instinct. I’ve listened to the speech over and over through the years.
The original passage from from King’s speech used for the inscription went like this:
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.
On the stone it ended up as:
I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.
Maya Angelou was an early critic of the misquote, and she was told as, as many were that it wasn’t a big deal. But as Ms. Angelou pointed out, King in his speech was talking about how others might remember him. If the stone had read “He was a Drum Major for Justice, Peace and Righteousness” it would have been truly fitting and intentionally ironic.
But to take a portion of such a great speech out of context could not be allowed to stand. All involved will be better because of this revision. Most notably the legacy of Dr. King.