Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Jumbled words: Do they change history?

I love historical quotes.

Here's a clip that contains audio of my favorite quote from Dr. Martin Luther King. 

My favorite part is "Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve."

A few weeks ago, a controversy flared up over King's words. A memorial to the American civil rights leader includes an abbreviated inscription. Poet and Author Maya Angelou criticized the action. The current inscription reads:
"I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness."
It's not a direct quote. It's been altered to fit the memorial. 

His real comment: 
"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."
According to this ABC News report, the MLK memorial is not alone with changing quotes from the men being recognized. Similar changes have been made to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln Memorials as well as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's monument.

Angelou complained that leaving the "if" off the quote that it makes King "look like an arrogant twit." 

I believe the quote should be removed. If there isn't enough room for the whole quote, then leave it off. 
I feel like the memorial creators are taking a rule from Thomas Edison's playbook. A fun quote attributed to him:  "Hell there are no rules here — we're trying to accomplish something."

What do you think:  Is it fair to change Dr. King's words? Do you care if people change your written or spoken words.


  1. Excellent post, Stacy, and excellent question.
    I agree--that quote shouldn't have been posted in such an incomplete, i.e. out of context, form. They didn't even use ellipses to indicate words left out: " ... I was a drum major for justice ... for peace ... for righteousness."
    I guess there wasn't even enough room to punctuate it properly. It's still a lousy rendition of the quote, no matter how it's done.

  2. Words, either left out or added, do change the context of history. Words can start avalanches, fires, or droughts in the spirit of men and women. I agree with Angelou. If history is not remembered in its correct form, how will our children understand the process of revolution wrought by Dr. King's words? His example led many to place their faith in the power of words, not violence, for revolution. Great post, Stacy, made me think early this morning.:)

  3. Great post Stacy, got the gears turning...
    It seems like if it's a quote it should be exact, especially if the person being quoted can no longer be asked to clarify his/her intention.

  4. Beth, Tonia & Coleen... Thanks for thinking about this topic with me. This week as I visited Mount Rushmore I looked a little closer at displays and quotes.

  5. I agree with Beth. They shouldn't be able to change a direct quote unless they indicate where they made the changes. This is just footnoting/attribution 101. It becomes a very slippery slope.

    Wow - I'm fired up now! :-)

  6. Good question, Stacy. I only recently heard about this. It's bad enough that they carved his image out of white stone. Now they take liberties with the words of one of our greatest American rhetoricians. The word "If" is essential to his ethos and the meaning.

  7. @Julie Hedlund - agree it becomes a slippery slope.
    @ Julie Farrar - Yes, the "if" is essential.

  8. I think if it changes the meaning, which in this case I believe it does, then no they shouldn't change anything. Paraphrasing or shortening a quote is okay as long as it retains the original meaning, but never otherwise.

  9. @Cheryl - Yes. I think this one changes the meaning. Last week while visiting a few historical sites, it made me question the quotes/materials in the educational displays. Sigh.


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