How To Fix the MLK Memorial: Get a Writer on Board

What a small mess they’ve made of the Martin Luther King memorial. And all for the want of a good writer.

If you haven’t been following the controversy, they botched the main inscription on the front of the statue — so badly, in fact, that Maya Angelou said it made King sound like “an arrogant twit.”

They attempted to paraphrase something King said in a speech a couple of months before his death. As the Washington Post explains:

King spoke of the “drum major instinct” as the epitome of egotism, a self-centered view of the world that he denounced. Imagining his eulogy, King used the conditional tense: “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.”

This they condensed into:

“I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.”

Pretty bad, since it completely bungles the context of what King was saying. Inartful, too, because it just doesn’t have the poetic ring of the Reverend’s most famous pronouncements.

When I first heard of the controversy, I wondered how, with all the eloquent things King said over his career, they ended up with this. As I learned when I visited the memorial (I happened to be in Washington on the opening weekend), there’s a wall with some of his better known statements.

Thankfully, after months of clamor, a fix has been ordered. But it’s not going to be easy, since the inscription is carved into a three-foot block of granite and radical changes would require dismantling the whole statute.

If it were me, I wouldn’t even try to make it a quote. I’d just use the three key words as is: Justice. Peace. Righteousness.

So how did they end up in this mess in the first place? It turns out they put the choice of inscription in the hands of the sculptor and architect. Lesson? When you want writing done right, hire a writer. Or a poet. Maya Angelou certainly has an opinion.

(Photo courtesy of ME)

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