JANUARY 13, 2012 6:27PM

M.L.K. - An Inventive Remembrance

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Dr. King once delivered a sermon called "The Drum Major Instinct" which is ripe with parallels to our day.

The politics of destruction, the chutzpah (however you choose to pronounce it) of reality-show presidential candidates, the culture war, imperialism, flattery carrots and fear sticks, the big lies of the perpetual sales job; it's all in there.

You read Vietnam in the transcript but you seemlessly transition to southwest Asia, thirty-five years after.

You get more than an inkling of why tea-partiers (the original, uncoopted ones) and occupy movement folks haven't found solidarity.

He rails against those who wish to claim special credit for closeness with Jesus without letting the test of time, others' remembrances, and Saint Peter decide the matter.

As we celebrate the King holiday, remember that this is the first year of a glorious new memorial along the Tidal Basin.

If you're not moved by it, I challenge that you have a pulse.


I had been there two days before the dedication in October, mentioned in my series here. You're meant to pass through a gap in the same granite rock as the statuary, seen at a long distance in this shot.



We were shepherded a different way because of folding chairs, risers, cables and scaffolding.



Dr. King is just to the right in the above shot and here one reads the first inscription among many. The quote is "Out of the mountain of despair - a stone of hope" from the "I Have a Dream" speech.


On the other side is written “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

Highlights of "The Drum Major Instinct" are:

"And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It's a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life."

"There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive ... you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. ... It causes you to lie about who you know sometimes. ...it causes one to engage ultimately in activities that are merely used to get attention. ...he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. ... And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct."

"If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. ... Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. ...

"I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. ...

"I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. ...

"I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity."

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. ...I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say."


I hadn't known that the inscription was meant to include ellipses suggesting conditional mode and then an imperative introductory clause, or that an editor invented an entirely new meaning of the remembrance just by being her or himself.

In the sermon, in its entirety, here, you see better than in any synopsis how he's foreshadowing his own eulogy.

Tearing into that quote to find the right length of words for the inscription, the King Memorial's Council of Historians' web page has it condensed into:  “…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.”

Then this happened.

mlk_left_side No one claims credit for the edit. It just "happened."

You know: immacuwack.

As a Washington Post editorial put it: "Someone, somewhere along the line, made a decision that makes King look like something he was not: an arrogant jerk." Maya Angelou had some choice words along the same lines. At the time, I recall saying aloud "if I do say so myself" and now I know I wasn't the only one.

Whatever the cost, it will help the memorial better fulfill its purpose to make this right as quickly as possible.

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It's a beautiful memorial, but I'm with you on the asininity (is that a word?) of the drum major inscription. You'd think they'd use a proofreader before carving into a multi-million dollar monument to a great man.
You would have to grind off both sides, re-chisel (word?) exact quotes (preferably) or consensus-driven, semantically pure edits. And get it right. What could go wrong?

Ordinarily we would go with the Colts. This year, all our hunting dogs are deceased. Dead. No more.

Muerto, acabado, no mas. Mein Chiefs, sie sind tot. I will however be watching the Denver/New England game tomorrow in hopes of seeing Tebow get sacked multiple times. In your face, Jesus!
You realize this means war! (Came with the avatar.)

Damn. Used to listen to Bronco games on an old AM radio when we lived on the Pecos. '73 or so.

My wife's a hoosier. Say no more; know what I mean?

As for Tebow, as Willie sung it, New England's defense will be "a land that knows no parting." He starts his "rebuilding" vespers tomorrow.
Stacey, thanks for the story and the links. How could they not see they were changing the entire intent and meaning from the speech? They could sandblast "Say" at the beginning, then have the entire text inscribed below, or on a bronze plate. Well....I have to see it for myself.

I appreciate your pointing this out..it is important.
Stacey, I was totally unaware of this condensed version of his speech with the original meaning now garbled. As you point out, it would take a bit of heavy duty work to do this over again since memorials don't come with edit buttons like blogs do! Thanks for the interesting story and photos--you show some angles to the memorial I hadn't seen before, both visual and text-wise!
Gary - I didn't know the Biblical passages to do with the left and right hands, but not much is lost on that account. The embellishments of a sermon in parentheses were interesting but the applicability to many of the politicians who wear their Christianity like a prerequisite is most significant. Folks like Dave Weigel point out that "love" is a word rarely used by that cohort.

John - I was unaware until an editorial looking back on the past year just happened to mention it. It's a black mark for editing, sure, but can be done and behind us with prompt attention. Fingers crossed.

Thanks, all, for your interest and great comments.
Thanks, stacey, for the detailed story. I'd been scratching my head and saying what's the big deal - and now I know.

It's 8 pm saturday night, halftime in the above-mentioned football game, and the patriots are eating the broncos for lunch. Heh heh.
Femme - it IS a big deal; you've got that right. Looks like the Broncos fans held a "J" sign up to their foreheads. Only backwards.