MLK memorial gets a faithful re-write

Aug. 22, 2011James “Plunky” Branch plays the soprano saxophone in silent tribute at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Branch … Continued


Aug. 22, 2011James “Plunky” Branch plays the soprano saxophone in silent tribute at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Branch was unable to play at the risk of being asked to leave by the U.S. Park Service.Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post

Finally! A wrong has been righted or at least chiseled away. The National Park Service has begun the removal of the statement “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness” from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.

The statement is a poor paraphrase from King’s 1968 “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. The full quotation reads: “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.” The paraphrase does not convey King’s point, which was to downplay his personal accomplishments and to highlight his community service and compassion for others. The paraphrase will be removed at an estimated cost of $1 million.

Although the removal is a welcome step; there is, unfortunately, another very serious problem with the memorial that cannot be fixed by erasing. The King Memorial is devoted solely to a man— not to the movement that made him great.

At the King Memorial, King stands alone literally and figuratively. While the nearby Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials include statues of Jefferson and Lincoln (if standing) that are shorter than the 30-foot relief of King, the massive exterior of those memorials anchors those statues. King stands alone without an edifice or adjacent structure to lower the visual impact of the statue. In depicting King by himself, the King Memorial fails to acknowledge the many people who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Although King became a symbol of the non-violent civil rights struggle, King was not the architect or sole leader of the movement. Numerous individuals and organizations fought for social justice before, during, and after King’s demonstrations.

Also, King stands alone, apart from time and history. The King Memorial features a wall of inscriptions that are ripped from their historical context. The inscriptions are quotations taken from King’s sermons, speeches, and writings, and each inscription includes a year and usually a location. Yet, there is no indication of the audience or the occasion for King’s words. The quotations offer a poor representation of the breadth of King’s thought and of changes in his thought and approach over time. The historical setting of his life, his work, and his death is lost. Instead of standing as a historical figure, King is an ambiguous figure vulnerable to distortion.

King stands alone as a civil rights icon. The King Memorial does not address the diversity of thought nor the diversity of strategy employed in the history of social protest in America. King and his demonstrations were not uniformly welcomed by other Black leaders. Also, Malcolm X and others opposed King’s commitment to non-violent engagement and proposed more radical tactics. None of this range of thought is evident at the King Memorial. Nor is there an acknowledgement of other movements that emerged from the Civil Rights Movement, including efforts to achieve greater equality for women and for gays and lesbians.

To be sure, given the history of slavery, reconstruction, segregation, and continued racial discrimination in the U.S., it is certainly momentous to have a memorial to an African American near the National Mall. Dr. King’s accomplishments and enduring legacy as a champion for non-violence, civil rights, anti-war advocacy, and economic justice deserve to be praised and remembered.

Yes, the paraphrase should be eliminated. Still remaining is the memorial’s neglect of the grassroots heroes and heroines who marched, sang, prayed, and died alongside of Dr. King. King was so convinced of the importance of the movement and value of the many persons working for social change that he gave his Nobel Prize money to several civil rights organizations and donated his speaking honorariums to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he lead without ever receiving a salary. As we celebrate Dr. King, the real meaning of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is not the man but the movement of which he was a part. King valued the movement and the people involved in it. Should not the memorial in his honor also do the same?

Nyasha Junior is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Howard University School of Divinity.

Frederick Ware is Associate Professor of Theology at Howard University School of Divinity.

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  • JackArmstrong

    The selected quotations are limiting and myopic, but the real problem with the memorial is that monstrosity that not only looks nothing like the man, but portrays him as unapproachable and self-possessed, in a style reminiscent of the worst of Maoist-Stalinist deification.

    They can alter the quotations all they like, or add a hundred more, but as long as that offensive and inappropriate statue remains, the memorial will remain a failure.

  • csandersdcdc

    Consider this. The words “justice, peace, and righteousness” have now been obliterated from the MLK Memorial. What does that signify about our language and our ethics 50 years after the historic March on Washington?