Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Controversy

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Controversy
Courtesy of Flickr CC License / peru lili eta marije. Used under Creative Commons

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently gave the National Park Service 30 days to revise a truncated and controversial quote inscribed on the newly built Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The inscription, paraphrased by architect Ed Jackson Jr. and artist Lei Yixin, turns a speech about humility into a quote that makes MLK look like, in the words of Maya Angelou, an “arrogant twit.” Thankfully this will be corrected, but it remains unclear to me how the design team will satisfyingly right this wrong.

As it is now, the quote chiseled into the MLK Memorial reads, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” The quote was shortened when the planners decided to switch the then much shorter quote, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope” to the south side of the statue and the “Drum Major” quote to the north side. With the north side already prepared for the shorter inscription, Ed Jackson Jr. made the executive decision to paraphrase the quote to fit within the smaller space. Unfortunately, he misunderstood King’s speech.

Courtesy of Flickr CC License / juggernautco. Used under Creative Commons

What King really said is, “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. Say that I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

Washington Post writer Rachel Manteuffel claims, by leaving out the If, the architect and artist completely missed the point of King’s speech called “The Drum Major Instinct.” Manteuffel points out that King “is creating a bit of a straw man: If you see him as an attention-craver, a puffed-up drum major—if you call him out on this conceit, a weakness most people are prone to—then at least he would hope that you saw him doing it for the most noble causes.” He isn’t calling himself a drum major; he thought it a folly to do so. “The whole speech, in fact, is about the evils of self-promotion.

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Still, returning the If will rectify the arrogant reading, but this solution falls well short of a satisfying solution. Unless people actually go and listen to and/or read the speech, which I strongly encourage you to do, I am not sure the extended version of the quote will capture the point of King’s message. I know I did not understand what King meant by a drum major until I read and listened to it.

King’s speech revolves around the biblical story of two disciples, James and John, asking Jesus how they can gain special favor in the eyes of their lord. Responding to this, King says, we all have, deep inside, James’ and John’s “desire to be out front, desire to lead the parade, desire to be first,” a kind of drum major instinct. It is a natural instinct, but when corrupted it can lead to unthinkable ills.

“The drum major instinct can lead to exclusivism in one’s thinking and can lead one to feel that because he has some training, he’s a little better than that person who doesn’t have it. Or because he has some economic security, that he’s a little better than that person who doesn’t have it. And that’s the uncontrolled, perverted use of the drum major instinct.”

Yet, instead of condemning individuals like John and James as selfish for having drum major desires, Jesus says, “But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.” To that King says, “And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.” As Manteuffel correctly points out, King doesn’t want to be remembered as a drum major; if anything he wants to be remembered as a servant of humanity.

If we dare choose to paraphrase King at all, I might suggest, “If you feel a need to say something about me, say I tried to live as a servant of humanity, justice, peace, and righteousness.” Then again, I think it is exceedingly obtuse not to use a direct quote from a man who could right moral compasses with his words. What that quote is, I don’t know, but it should, no matter the length, be honest to King’s legacy.

If you enjoyed this article check out more by Christopher N. Henry here.


peru, lili eta marije


Manteuffel, Rachel. “Correcting the Martin Luther King memorial mistake,” Washington Post. January 13, 2012.

(I have really enjoyed the Washington Post’s coverage on this story. They really seemed to have gotten this one right, and made things happen.)

Weingarten, Gene and Michael E. Ruane. “Maya Angelou says King memorial inscription makes him look ‘arrogant’” Washington Post. August 30, 2011.

Weingarten, Gene and Michael E. Ruane. “Maya Angelou says King memorial inscription makes him look ‘arrogant’” Washington Post. August 30, 2011.

Ruane, Michael. “Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial architect says controversial inscription will stay,” Washington Post. September 3, 2011.

Manteuffel, Rachel. “Martin Luther King a drum major? If you say so.” Washington Post. August 25, 2011.

The MLK Jr. memorial’s monumental misquote” Washington Post. September 1, 2011.

Mark 10:43-45 You can find several variation of this passage. The words seen here are the ones Martin Luther King Jr used.

Martin Luther King Jr. “The Drum Major Instinct” February 4, 1968. This speech still has a lot of relevance today, especially when he talks about how the the drum major instinct leads people to live outside their means.

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Cite: Christopher N. Henry. "Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Controversy" 16 Jan 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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