I have not yet had the chance to see the newest addition to the National Mall, the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but I am looking forward to it. Having studied both Dr. King's writings and his historical legacy in college, I have long considered Dr. King as one of the greatest leaders America has ever produced.
That is why I am so pleased to see him take his place among the other great leaders in U.S. history. His name belongs in the same league with Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, Roosevelt and Kennedy. However, as the Washington Post has reported this week, there is a glaring omission in one of the quotes on the memorial that absolutely must be fixed.
King was a man of great subtlety and extraordinary intellect, which anyone who has read his letters, sermons and other collected writings can attest. While he is best known for his leadership in the civil rights movement and his iconic "I have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he was so much more than just a great political strategist or speechmaker. His writings on ethics, morality, philosophy and theology are of a depth and power of insight that frequently places him on the same reading lists in top-level college philosophy courses as Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Kierkegaard and Gandhi.
So how is it that one of the most prominent quotes on the new King memorial is not only truncated, but mangled to a point where its meaning has been completely distorted?
At issue is the partial quote: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." What he actually said was far different in meaning, as the Post correctly points out, and far more humble. It came, in fact, from a sermon on the evils of self-promotion. Insert the opening words: "If you want to say I was a drum major, say that …" before the rest of the quote above and you see how the meaning completely changes. This decision may have been made by an architect and committee more interested in brevity than historical accuracy, but how could such a blunder make it through any kind of review process to the point where it is now literally carved in stone?
I see this as yet another instance of the destructive impulse to "dumb down" our history. The assumption that any level of complexity is too much for the average American to handle, a completely false one in my book, only creates a self-fulfilling bias in favor of historical ignorance. What’s wrong with putting a quote on the side of a memorial that makes people stop, reflect and exercise their brains a little? Who cares if it's longer than a typical third-grade-level soundbite? Just look at the length of some of the quotes inscribed on the Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt memorials and watch how many tourists stand there reading, digesting and understanding every single word.
Let's truly honor Dr. King's memory by restoring his actual words to this memorial. We cannot learn anything of value from "dumbing down" one of history's brightest minds.