It's Martin Luther King Jr. Day. A day to reflect about peace. About equality. And about dreaming big dreams. But for the National Park Service officials charged with creating the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, it's also a day to reflect about the power — and politics — of words.
The much-anticipated memorial to MLK was unveiled last summer. No sooner had the curtain fallen on D.C.'s newest monument than the criticisms started flying. The reason? The words chosen to be inscribed on the side of the memorial.
As it stands, the memorial includes a quote on its side that states, "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." Not bad. But it's not what King said. And many, including members of the King family and the King Memorial Foundation, feel that this quote distorts King's real meaning.
Poet Maya Angelou was one of the memorial's early critics, saying that the distortion of King's words made him look like "an arrogant twit."
Here is the direct quote from a sermon delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, just weeks before his death:
"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 meaning is quite different and it just goes to show the power of words, and how what are perceived as even minor edits can transform the sentiment of a statement.
At the time, officials said the fuller quote did not fit on the allotted space. But Ken Salazar, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior (the agency in charge of the National Park Service), announced over the weekend that the NPS will have one month to change and/or fix the quote. This time, members of the King family, and other interested parties will have a say in how the quote is changed.