Do Shallow Things Really Matter? – Fixing the King Memorial

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:

King Memorial Drum Major Paraphrase on the Stone of Hope

Image of the Drum Major paraphrase on the King Memorial. Credit Jermaine M. McDonald.

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?


2 thoughts on “Do Shallow Things Really Matter? – Fixing the King Memorial

  1. Nice solution!! I have not yet seen this memorial, but your comments remind me powerfully of how moved I was when visiting the CIvil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. Particularly beautiful in Maya Lin’s monument there is the quotation “…until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream,” carved in smooth black granite, with a fine film of water constantly flowing down over it. King famously used this line in his “I Have a Dream” speech. It always struck me as a bit strange, though, that the monument cites King as the source of this quotation, without acknowledging that he was himself directly quoting from the prophet Amos. Maybe it was a conscious decision (parsimony and aesthetic balance, as you note above?). Still, I can’t help thinking that the quotation would gain added power for many viewers if they were also apprised of its biblical roots, and thus encouraged to reflect BOTH on its timeless wisdom AND on how Martin made us aware of its particular meaning for us, within the “fierce urgency” of our particular “now.”
    Should the inscription be changed? At the end of the day, the issue of attribution is, to be sure, a rather “shallow thing.” What is important is how King challenged us all to appreciate, to appropriate, and to actualize in our own lives, as he did, the beauty of these ancient words. (Just happened on your blog by accident — love it!)

  2. Pingback: Hear, hear for editors | Minnesota Transplant

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