Written in stone: Editing the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial

Many years ago, while working at a large consulting firm, I participated in what I thought was a particularly clever marketing program. The tag line: “Funny how one slip of a word can change the entire meaning of what you’re trying to say.” The cartoon-like graphics included Richard Nixon, wearing a chef’s hat and holding a spatula proclaiming, “I am not a cook”; Abraham Lincoln with a festive paper hat, a party whistle and a mug saying, “Four score and seven beers ago”; and – my personal favorite – a dog in a space suit with the caption “The beagle has landed!” The obvious pitch: Hire a professional to do your writing because even one small mistake can completely change your meaning and ruin the message.

We took a humorous approach to the subject, but, last week, a much more serious illustration of the same principle came to light. As our nation celebrated the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., word that he had been incorrectly quoted on his own memorial, dedicated last October in Washington, D.C., hit mainstream news sources.

The Washington Post reports that original plans for the monument included the full, in-context quote. After the plans were approved, however, the architect and sculptor decided it would “look better with fewer words.”

On Feb. 4, 1968, Dr. King delivered a sermon called “The Drum Major Instinct” to his congregation in Atlanta, Ga. In it, 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.” The monument, however, reads “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” Given that the point of Dr. King’s sermon was to stress the importance of service to others ahead of oneself, the rewrite completely changes the intent. Without the “if,” the implication is pride-filled and boastful – the opposite of Dr. King’s real message.

Poet Maya Angelou, who knew and worked with King, has commented that it makes Dr. King sound like “an arrogant twit.” King’s own son, Martin Luther King III, stated, “That was not what Dad said.” Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert noted that the quotation is “… to the point. Not Dr. King’s point, but still. Brevity is the soul of saving money on chiseling fees.”

The Washington Post reports that original plans for the monument included the full, in-context quote. After the plans were approved, however, the architect and sculptor decided it would “look better with fewer words.” (I can almost hear the guffaws of the editors among you. It reminds me of the time an executive for whom I had written a memo told me, “It has too many dashes.”)

Secretary of the Department of the Interior Ken Salazar – my new hero – has given the National Park Service 30 days to meet with the King Memorial Foundation, family members and other interested parties to find a more accurate alternative. In a statement to the press, he noted, “This is important because Dr. King and his presence on the Mall is a forever presence for the United States of America, and we have to make sure that we get it right.”

I agree completely although I would take it a step further and simply argue that it’s always important to get it right. It is one of the immutable truths of the universe. It just is.

It’s appropriate that Dr. King, who used language so beautifully, will win this particular battle. As all good writers do, he understood the importance and the value of getting every word exactly right.

Let me offer my gratitude to Ken Salazar, who has struck a blow on behalf of professional writers and editors everywhere. Every word truly does make a difference.



© 2017 Betty Henry Communications