Taking a few words at their meaning, out of context with the events, or in some cases hundreds of words surrounding them is a recipe for disaster. In particular, the Rev. Martin Luther King, whose speeches and collective will driven by the righteousness of our cause shook our national psyche to it’s very foundations, left us with a number or speeches and written words left us with a number of “quotable moments” which cannot be distilled without context.
My parents, being educators collected a number of King’s Speeches and much of his oratory on old 33 1/3 RPM records allowing us to go back and review and rehear his speeches, discussions, and debates again and again. I would guess that well North of several thousand published works document the Civil Rights period, making it, WWII, and the Great Depression the most documented and detailed events of the past century.
So it is a little distressing when they get it wrong on the Memorial…
The arc of a mistake is long, and it now stretches from the Oval Office over to the Mall.
An error has been etched in marble on the grand Martin Luther King Jr. memorial that was to be dedicated Sunday, on the 48th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Some of King’s speeches and writings have been inscribed in the memorial. But one of the sayings on the wall by the Tidal Basin is incorrect — or incomplete — in its attribution.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
According to David Remnick’s biography of Obama, that is the president’s “favorite quotation.” Obama brought the idea back into present-day parlance and even had it sewn into the rug in the Oval Office when he redecorated last year. But as I wrote on this page last September, King is not the source of that quote.
The president should correct the record on words he cherishes, which are mistakenly and commonly cited as King’s.
Theodore Parker, a long-gone Bostonian abolitionist and Unitarian minister, is the true author. The charismatic Parker died at age 49 in 1860, just before the Civil War.
In King’s heyday, the civil rights leader and Southern Baptist preacher often joined Parker’s “arc” quotation with his own refrains of “We shall overcome” or “How long? Not long.” On the gleaming curving wall of the King memorial, the “arc” quotation is given simply as King’s, spoken in 1968 in the District of Columbia. The lines are presented with more than a dozen other lyrical passages of his oratory and the 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” An excerpt from King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1964 is also part of the massive memorial, which faces the Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin in a defiant historical dialogue.
King saw Parker as a kindred spirit on the front lines of America’s first civil rights movement. During the bitterly divided 1850s, Parker belonged to a network of abolitionist Quakers, Unitarians, Transcendentalists and Underground Railroad organizers. This vanguard of whites and blacks embraced nonviolent civil disobedience, the philosophy of social change that King embraced in his own time and place.
King honored Parker’s original thought by breathing new life and meaning into his 19th-century words. There is no question of plagiarism; King made no secret of the source. As clergy, they also shared a religious basis for their social ideals…
This is documented both in the excellent work “Parting the Waters”, as well as in King’s own speeches leading up the the 1963 speech on the Mall.
For the record, Parker said in 1853:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one . . . But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
Then there is this –
On Feb. 4, 1968, two months before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a haunting sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church about a eulogy that might be given in the event of his death.
“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King told the congregation. “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 sermon was so powerful that the designers of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington selected those lines to be inscribed on the memorial’s towering statue of the civil rights leader.
But because of a design change during the statue’s creation, the exact quotes had to be paraphrased, and now one of the memorial’s best-known consultants, poet and author Maya Angelou, says the shortened inscription is misleading and ought to be changed.
Carved on the north face of the 30-foot-tall granite statue, the inscription reads: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.
“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” Angelou, 83, said Tuesday. “He 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 ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
The paraphrase “minimizes the man,” she said. “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.”
She said the quote should be changed to put it in context.
Told the quote had to be paraphrased to fit the available space, she replied: “Too bad.”…
All in all, I can’t say that the MLK Memorial reflects either what I envisioned it might be – or that it is entirely successful at conveying the spirit of the Man, and the millions (missing in the Memorial) who marched beside him. Or the hundreds who gave their lives, cut down by the forces of evil.
The WWII Memorial leaves me equally cold, and that was after visiting it to take a group of WWII Vets to see it…
Then again, I didn’t think much of the Vietnam Memorial Plan before they finished it and I visited it late one evening.