Washington and the nation still await the formal dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, but that hasn’t stopped many of us from visiting the newest addition to the Mall. While critiquing new Memorials is a team sport in DC, reaction has been largely positive, and most of us find the Memorial rounds out our nation’s civic space quite nicely.
However, one element has not been as well received. On my first visit, I was struck by the quote “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness” on the side of the high relief statue of Martin Luther King. It was the only discordant note on an otherwise well done Memorial, and struck me as odd for a man who was as well spoken and filled with humility as Dr. King.
A few days later, my suspicions were confirmed by an editorial piece by Washington Post’s Rachel Manteuffel. She found that the quote had been truncated from a longer speech in which he said “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.”
As is apparently clear to everyone but the Memorial’s architect, dropping the crucial “if” and the various “say that’s” clearly shifts the meaning of the quote, making King appear boastful and even, as Maya Angelou put it, like an “arrogant twit”.
Disappointing perhaps, but a quick glance around the Mall shows the Dr. King is in good company. Memorials on the Mall (and elsewhere for that matter) have an, at best, imperfect track record on accuracy.
Honest Abe himself has a mistake carved into his Memorial, although in his case it’s clearly an error and not an editorial decision. Generations of schoolchildren have been delighted to search for the mistake in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. In the first paragraph, the President speaks of our “high hope for the euture.” Now, of course, this was a simple mis-carving, and the “E” was immediately corrected in the 1920s to an “F”, but it’s still visible and stands as an unofficial memorial to human error.
Nor are our newer Memorials spared the indignity of inaccuracy. The Korean War Veteran’s Memorial tells us that 54,246 Americans were killed in the war. This is the number provided during construction by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Further review by the Department of Defense now puts that number at 33,686. A significant gap, so what happened?
Nothing really. Both numbers are correct, but tell different stories. The first indicates Americans killed world wide, the second are those attributed directly to action in Korea. It seems implausible really, but these nearly 21,000 deaths are a testament to how dangerous even non-combat military service can be, and even a reminder to how much improved the DoD's safety record is.
However, just across the Tidal Basin lies perhaps the most egregious example. Thomas Jefferson’s Memorial is flanked by four major quotations. Numbers one, two, and four, are fairly simple; quoting from the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and a letter of Jefferson’s written in 1816. But let’s take a look at panel number three, in the northeast corner:
God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Establish a law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state and on a general plan.
All fine and good. It appears that Jefferson is cognizant of the dangers slavery poses and certain of its eventual overthrow. We know that Jefferson is a complex character, a born and bred slave-holder, but aware of both the practical problems of slavery as well as its fundamentally incompatibility with democracy. This quote seems to capture this, no?
But it’s not really an accurate quote. In fact, it’s not one quote, but six separate quotes, truncated and strung together as if it were one. The first sentence is not even about slavery, but rather liberty in context of the colonists’ struggle with Britain. Slavery creeps into the later sentences, where the quote correctly states that Jefferson referred to the institution as despotism.
But we’re still missing some critical nuance. When Jefferson said “nothing is more certain than these people will be free,” the rest of the quote reads; “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.”
Like all Memorials, the Jefferson Memorial speaks as much to who built it and what they were attempting to say as it does to the subject. And the selected editing of his Panel Three speaks more to what the Memorial’s New Deal creators wanted Jefferson to stand for, rather than what he actually did.
So even if Dr. King’s quote is never corrected, he, and all of us, can rest easy that we no more will think of him as a drum major than we think of Jefferson as an anti-slavery champion. Perhaps it’s not bad that we all should dig a little deeper to really understand our nation’s history.
This post originally appeared on Huffington Post DC.