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Martin Luther King Jr.: What he really said

January 16, 2012 | 10:28 am

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a gifted orator who remains one of the most oft-quoted men in modern history; his "I Have a Dream Speech," above, is a stirring call to action to this day. Such a legacy also means there's trouble when King is misquoted.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has given the National Park Service 30 days -- because "things only happen when you put a deadline on it" -- to fix a badly mangled quote etched in stone on the side of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington.

The offending line reads: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

PHOTOS: Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

The quote is problematic on a number of fronts. First, King never said that. The line is a paraphrase, which in itself might be considered ironic. After all, King was responsible for many powerful utterances that have been captured, accurately, between quote marks.

Second, the line could be interpreted to have an arrogance and boastfulness that were uncharacteristic of the civil rights leader. It also seems to have a speaking-beyond-the-grave quality, as the Washington Post put it in a report on Salazar's deadline.

Poet and author Maya Angelou was among the first to take issue with the so-called quote.

Here's what King actually said in a 1968 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta: "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."

That context, and especially the use of the word "if," completely changes the meaning, Angelou said.

King's son, Martin Luther King III, told CNN that he wants the memorial fixed: "It's going to be corrected .... that was not what Dad said."

Even President Obama has weighed in regarding the quote.

It's unclear how the line will be fixed. Will an actual quote replace it?

On Monday, the nation is pausing to remember King, who was slain while trying to put the country on a path toward racial equality. Commemorations, service projects and, of course, a Google Doodle are among the observances.

King was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis. Had he lived, he would have been 83 on Sunday.


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-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch