On Oct. 23, 2010 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial – “The Stone of Hope” – was unveiled in Washington, D.C. to a mound of criticism stemming from a quote attributed to King inscribed on the side of the sculpture. The inscription reads, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
Political figures and community leaders throughout the nation were up in arms about the fact that the quote was a paraphrase that they considered taken out of context from King’s “Drum Major” sermon delivered on Feb. 4, 1968, at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King told the congregation two months before he was assassinated. “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.”
As elsewhere, South Florida residents had opinions on the matter. Said Shantory Gaskins of Pompano Beach:
“Upon initially hearing about the controversy surrounding the quote on Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial I can honestly say I did not see what was the big deal,” she said. “Not until after hearing the sermon for myself, (from) which the quote was paraphrased.”
In the sermon, “Martin Luther King Jr. clearly expresses how the drum major instinct is a character we all have, but must be careful to not pervert it and think more highly of ourselves,” Gaskins said. “Martin Luther King Jr.’s main purpose was not to be known for his great accomplishments, but for the love he had for humanity.”
The Rev. Thomas Hunter of West Palm Beach expressed a different view. The paraphrase “is a metaphor that simply means that he knew that God called him to lead His marching band for those things,” said Hunter. “Let’s not forget he led marches on Selma, Birmingham and Washington D.C. for justice, peace and righteousness. In my mind it’s similar to saying that Dr. King was a general in the army of the Lord.”
Esteemed author Maya Angelou told the press last year that the paraphrase of his actual quote “makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit.” King, she added, “was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply. He had no arrogance at all,” she said. “He had a humility that comes from deep inside.”
The venerable Angelou said “The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.” The paraphrase “minimizes the man,” she said, as reported by The Washington Post. “It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was. . . . It makes him seem an egotist.” The drum major reference “wasn’t all that he was,” she said. “He would never have said that of himself. He said ‘you’ might say it.” Gaskins feels the same.
“I do not think the quote speaks to the leader he was because it has a sense of arrogance,” said Gaskins. “Martin Luther King Jr.’s main purpose was not to be known for his great accomplishments, but for the love he had for humanity and the quote should reflect that.” However, there are pros and cons to every argument. “It really does not make him sound arrogant,” said Hunter, “just misunderstood.”
Due to the negative publicity, the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees the memorial, met with the sculptor, Master Lei Yixin, the National Park Service, the King family and the Memorial Foundation to find the best solution for replacing the quote.
On Dec. 11, 2012 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar issued a press release advising that the quote will be removed and not replaced. In the release, Secretary Salazar said, “The memorial stands as a testament to Dr. King’s struggle for civil rights, and a dream of dignity, respect and justice for all. I am proud that all parties have come together on a resolution that will help ensure the structural integrity of this timeless and powerful monument to Dr. King’s life and legacy.”