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On this MLK Day, Righting the Rhetoric on King’s Memorial

January 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
In remembrance of the civil rights leader Monday, many visitors to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial stopped to read aloud the inspiring words -- and one misquote -- chiseled in granite. Margaret Warner discusses the mistake with the person who first publicized it: the Washington Post's Rachel Manteuffel.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and correcting an error on his memorial.

Margaret Warner has our story.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And what’s your name?

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama and his family set the day’s theme with a volunteer project at a school in Washington.

BARACK OBAMA: This is the third year now that we provide or engage in some sort of service on Dr. King’s birthday. And there’s no better way to celebrate Dr. King than to do something on behalf of others.

MARGARET WARNER: It was the first King holiday since the Martin Luther King Memorial opened to the public on the National Mall last August.

MAN: And this is the actual birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.

MARGARET WARNER: On Sunday, when King would have been 83, his son, Martin Luther King III, took part in a wreath-laying there. At the memorial today, visitors stopped to read aloud the words of the civil rights leader carved in granite.

CHILDREN: Dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.

CHILDREN: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

MARGARET WARNER: But another quote chiseled into the stone has been a source of criticism. Currently, it reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

It was taken from a 1968 speech in which King discussed how he might be remembered after his death.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., civil rights leader: 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.

MARGARET WARNER: The memorial’s lead architect said the quote was shortened to accommodate a design change planners made while the statue was being carved in China.

But one of the memorial’s consultants, poet Maya Angelou, complained that the truncated version distorted King’s meeting and made him sound like an arrogant twit. A number of others have agreed, including some visitors to the memorial over the weekend.

MAN: He was a great leader. So, to do that, I think I should you quote a great leader as though he meant it to be remembered.

MARGARET WARNER: On Friday, the Department of Interior, with jurisdiction over the memorial, announced the inscription would be changed.

The president today acknowledged the dispute, but stressed that the message was the important thing.

BARACK OBAMA: If you look at that speech talking about Dr. King as a drum major, what he really said was that all of us can be a drum major for service. All of us can be a drum major for justice. There’s nobody who can’t serve, nobody who can’t help somebody else.

MARGARET WARNER: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has given the National Park Service 30 days to consult with the memorial’s private foundation, the King family and others on how to modify the inscription.

And the error on the King Memorial was first highlighted in an opinion piece for The Washington Post late last August. It was written by Rachel Manteuffel, who is an editorial aid for the paper’s opinion section.

And she joins me now.

And, Rachel, welcome.

RACHEL MANTEUFFEL, The Washington Post: Hi. Thanks for having me, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: You caused quite a stir with this column of yours. What first tipped you off that the quote that had been chiseled in granite was in fact a misquote?

RACHEL MANTEUFFEL: You know, I just — I got to see it early because I live here. And so it was open to the public before the opening ceremonies.

And when I went to see it, it — it just didn’t seem right to me. It didn’t seem like something he would say. And if it was something he said, then it didn’t seem like something that is in keeping with the spirit that we remember him.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, why do you say it wasn’t like something he would say, to say I was a drum major for peace, justice and righteousness?

RACHEL MANTEUFFEL: Well, sort of proclaiming himself as something like that, something that demands a lot of attention, when I sort of see him as a very — he almost never talked about himself that way, as the most important part or the part that deserves attention.

MARGARET WARNER: And, in fact, that speech — it was a 5,000-word speech — actually was a warning about the dangers of what he called the drum major instinct, the desire to be out front, to get a lot of attention.

RACHEL MANTEUFFEL: Exactly, and that if you — if people say — he said that if people want to say that he sought attention that way, he hopes they would say it that he sought attention for justice, peace and righteousness, which is very different from asserting “I was.”

MARGARET WARNER: And it comes right at the end, doesn’t it, when he’s sort of reflecting on what people might say about him.

RACHEL MANTEUFFEL: Yes, it’s true, how he wants to be remembered.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, so, how did this — when your column first appeared — well, first of all, go back to how this reversal of — really of intent on his part happened, because all the other quotes on the memorial are exact quotes, aren’t they?

RACHEL MANTEUFFEL: Mm-hmm.

The Council of Historians, including Dr. Maya Angelou, chose, I think, 14 quotations. And they were put up — as you saw in the clip, they’re all around on the wall, things like that. And there’s a longer quote, “If you want to say I was…”

MARGARET WARNER: Which we heard him say.

RACHEL MANTEUFFEL: Exactly — “then all these other shallow things will not matter.”

And that was in the plans. And those plans were approved by the three government agencies that were supposed to approve the plans for the memorial. And after approval, without getting any consultation, there was a design decision made I believe by the architect that the face they wanted to carve on would not support a quote that long, so they needed a shorter quote. So they got a shorter quote.

MARGARET WARNER: They went ahead and paraphrased it.

So, now, when your piece first appeared, and there was — the architect, the lead architect and others with the memorial defended the short paraphrase. What happened? Describe the reaction and what do you think or you know caused this turnaround, to order essentially that there is going to be a change after all?

RACHEL MANTEUFFEL: I think — well, The Washington Post uncovered the story of how there had been a mistake in the process, that these agencies had approved plans that were changed.

And also Dr. Angelou and Martin Luther King III and several other — Stephen Colbert — several other opinion makers, people with moral authority in the matter who knew Dr. King, et cetera, sort of joined the chorus that was saying, this is not how we want to remember him. This isn’t what he meant.

MARGARET WARNER: And what was the secretary of interior, Ken Salazar’s initial reaction?

RACHEL MANTEUFFEL: He said he was concerned about it. And earlier, he wanted to see the dedication happen without this sort of coming into that, which, you know, makes sense to me anyway.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you mean, when they went through with the official dedication, which actually had to be delayed because of the hurricane, there was just no mention made of this?

RACHEL MANTEUFFEL: Exactly. And they had a lot of other things to celebrate.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, as we see — as you see when you go down there or see in this tape, it is a massive structure. What are the people involved saying are going to be the challenges of actually changing this?

RACHEL MANTEUFFEL: Well, it depends on how they decide to change it. But it is one big piece of stone. And I don’t know how easy or difficult it will be.

I know they did decide to truncate the quote in the first place because they weren’t sure the stone could support all of the words that the Council of Historians chose. So, I don’t know how they’re going to do that. But it’s going to be part of the plan that the National Park Service comes up with.

MARGARET WARNER: Rachel Manteuffel of The Washington Post, thank you so much.

RACHEL MANTEUFFEL: Thank you so much, Margaret.