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. – Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Drum Major Instinct“
This is the full quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s February 4, 1968 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Those responsible for building the National King Memorial determined that symmetry required a paraphrase so that both sides of the “Stone of Hope” would be balanced. This is what they came up with:
This Washington Post editorial, written by Rachel Manteuffell, kick up a firestorm by declaring that the paraphrase makes King look like an “arrogant jerk.” Maya Angelou took it a step further by suggesting that it made Dr. King look like an “arrogant twit.” Apparently, Department of the Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar agreed. On Friday, February 10, he announced that the paraphrase would be replaced by the full quote because, “with a monument so powerful and timeless, it is especially important that all aspects of its words, design and meaning stay true to Dr. King’s life and legacy.”
While I agree that the paraphrase was ill-conceived and misrepresents King’s real quote, I am not convinced that the decision to replace the quote is a good one. Replacing the quote would involve carving away a portion of the centerpiece of the memorial and trying to replace it with a matching veneer stone. Matching the veneer with the existing stone will not be an easy task. You are almost guaranteed to have some discoloration, ruining the aesthetic of the memorial by making a cleanly crafted memorial look like it had patchwork done.
The National King Memorial Foundation has a simpler solution that would not ruin the aesthetics while potentially solving the problem of the arrogance of the quotation. They propose adding two lines to the paraphrase, “Yes, if you say that I was a drum major, say …” Adding these two lines would not require carving away part of the stone and trying to find a veneer to match the existing stone. Neither would it require reducing the font size so that it would not match the font size of the words on the other side of the stone. It keeps intact the aesthetic that the designers and sculptors intended for the memorial and more properly represent Dr. King’s sentiment.
While I prefer the Foundation’s preferred change, I think the paraphrase misses the second part of the full quote more than the conditional statement. My preferred fix would be for the paraphrase to read:
If you must, you can say that
I was a drum major for justice,
peace and righteousness
The shallow things won’t matter
This captures the full sentiment of the quote without ruining the aesthetics of the memorial. But then again, it seems to me that any fix, or any argument about a potential fix falls directly under the category of “shallow things”. At the end of the day, does it really matter?