Special report: Quoting King!

PART 3—THE ICONS PUFF DR. KING UP: Has Dr. King been misquoted at the new King memorial? Has he perhaps been paraphrased badly, in a way which misrepresents the type of person he was?

In an editorial last Friday, the editors of the Washington Post said that King has been misquoted; they said the error could still be made right. And Maya Angelou reached the same conclusion. “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” she told the Post’s Gene Weingarten. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.”

The dispute concerns something Dr. King said in his famous sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct.” We all have an instinct to seek glory and fame, Dr. King said in the sermon; we all want to lead the parade. But he urged us to channel that drum major instinct in the direction of “moral excellence”—in the direction of service (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/7/11). Four months before his life was taken, Dr. King said that was what he himself had strived for. And he imagined what people might say about him when his life was over.

What follows is precious American history at its most important. The part of the sermon we’ve highlighted in the passage now under dispute. Remember—Dr. King had established, all through the sermon, that we all have an instinct to be “drum majors:”
DR. KING (2/4/68): Every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don't think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, "What is it that I would want said?" And I leave the word to you this morning.

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. (Yes!)

And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say.

Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important.

Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. (Yes!)

I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. (Yes!)

I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. (Amen!)

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. (Yes!)

And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. (Yes!)

I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. (Lord!)

I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. (Yes!)

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen!) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes!) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes!)

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. (Amen!)
That highlighted passage has been misquoted, or perhaps poorly paraphrased, at the King memorial. According to Angelou and the Post editors, it has been rendered in a way which changes Dr. King’s meaning and diminishes the person he was. As that passage has been rewritten, it now says only this:

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

Oof. Does that make Dr. King seem arrogant? We won’t say that ourselves. But Dr. King was a master of speech, and that is a leaden statement.

How did that leaden paraphrase end up at the King memorial? Therein lies a tiny, intriguing story about our failing culture.

The memorial resulted from the efforts of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, a group to which Dr. King belonged since his days at Boston University. Did the planners make a mistake in the choice of that paraphrase? Perhaps, but then everyone does at some point; in our view, the people who worked to create this memorial deserve their nation’s thanks. For ourselves, though, we were struck by the announcement which revealed the memorial’s featured quotations. We highlight the part of the announcement which seems like a sign of the times:
WASHINGTON, D.C. (February 15, 2007)—The Washington, DC Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation announced today the selected quotations from Dr. King’s writing, sermons and speeches that will be permanently engraved into memorial walls. In addition, the Memorial Foundation announced Master Lei Yixin as the Sculptor of Record who will carve the image of Dr. King into the “Stone of Hope”, the centerpiece of the Memorial.

Memorial Foundation’s “Council of Historians” selected quotations that best reflect King’s ideals of hope, democracy, and love, the three main themes of the memorial.


The Council of Historians is comprised of the following cultural icons: Dr. Maya Angelou (Reynolds Professor of American Studies, Wake Forest University), Mr. Lerone Bennett, Jr. (Executive Editor and Historian, Ebony Magazine/Johnson Publishing Company), Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (Chair, Department of African and African American Studies, Harvard University), Lonnie G. Bunch (Director, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History & Culture), Dr. James Chaffers (Professor University of Michigan), Dr. Johnetta B. Cole (President, Bennett College), Dr. John Hope Franklin (Duke University Department of History), Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Chair, Department of African and African American Studies, Harvard University), F. Michael Higginbotham (University of Baltimore School of Law, John and Frances Angelos Law Center), Mr. Jon Lockard (Professor University of Michigan), Dr. Cornel West (Professor of Religion and African American Studies, Princeton University), and Marianne Williamson (Spiritual Leader).
Originally, a group of “cultural icons” selected the quotations—including one selection from the sermon in which Dr. King urged us not to think of ourselves in such ways.

(Needless to say, it isn’t the fault of the cultural icons that they were described that way. Not exactly.)

We live in a culture which bows and scrapes and panders and fawns to high-ranking, low-performing celebrity. Indeed, even Rachel Manteuffel, who started this debate, deferred to the famous “cultural icons” in her Washington Post op-ed column. She said the big mistake in the paraphrased statement/quotation involves the way the “if clause” was dropped from Dr. King’s statement. Then, she implied that “the Council of Historians that chose the quotes” didn’t make that mistake.

We’re sorry, but that isn’t accurate; as you can see at the above link, the icons omitted the “if clause” too! But then, this kind of deference is so typical! First, Manteuffel said dropping the “if clause” was the key to the deal. Then, she seemed to think she had to pretend that those “cultural icons” didn’t screw that part up. (For the record, Angelou was one of those icons.)

Here at THE HOWLER, we think our culture is dying beneath a type of drum major instinct. It’s dying from unending deference to vast arrays of low-performing, high-ranking elites. And sure enough! In this relatively minor incident, a gang of high-ranking “usual suspects” were arrayed on that council of icons. Once again, our icons semi-screwed up, with Manteuffel and her editor bogusly saying they didn’t.

How odd! Let’s take ourselves down a peg, Dr. King urged. The icons then puffed his words up.

Tomorrow—part 4: New skills at the Washington Post


  1. Not what the Weingarten piece said, Bob. Although it's a little bit unclear, it seems that the guy in charge of the project changed the quote the panel selected to fit the space, ran it by a couple of people, not the full panel, and then just went ahead and had it done.

    From Weingarten:

    "Jackson said the project outlined the situation and the solution to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which was overseeing the memorial design. “They didn’t have a problem with it.”

    “Now, did I ask Maya Angelou?” he said. “No.”

    Although Angelou is listed among the memorial’s Council of Historians picked to select inscriptions for the memorial, she did not attend inscription meetings, Jackson said.

    He said he did tell two other top memorial advisers about the situation, Jon Onye Lockard and James Chaffers, of the University of Michigan.

    “I’m the guy that’s making the decisions,” Jackson said. “I informed them of what I was doing. I didn’t ask them for permission, or whether or not they agreed. But they liked the idea."

  2. I was pretty young at the time of his death (12), so I can't remember his funeral very well. Did anyone then take note of this speech from MLK? Did they follow his wishes then? In other words, did they leave out his Nobel and his awards and his academic pedigree? Did they focus on his service for the poor and the hungry and the imprisoned? I don't know, but I would be surprised if they did.

    That said, in all honesty *I* did not know this quote until the recent brouhaha. And, in the end, I think King gets his way. For all the shouting and mis-quoting, he still left behind "a committed life." And it is still true that in the face of justice, peace, and righteousness "all of the other shallow things will not matter."

  3. Looks to me like a huge game of lame excuses, pass the buck, and lame excuses. (Frankly, it does not surprise me that Angelou failed to attend the meetings, my limited interaction with her was extremely unpleasant, when she publicly insulted someone for their appearance.)

    It truly is embarrassing to see our public intellectuals and artists failing so spectacularly.

    Someday, maybe 10,000 years from now, this quote may be all that is left of King's Legacy, and to think that it misrepresents him is offensive in the extreme.