Why the MLK memorial makes King look 'arrogant'

Aug 31, 2011

I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.

This shortened quote from King's sermon at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, originally "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," has a lot of people wondering: Does the MLK memorial portray King as arrogant?

Join Rachel Manteuffel as she chats about the memorial and what it says about the famous civil rights leader. Submit your opinions and questions now.

- Martin Luther King a drum major? If you say so.
- Maya Angelou says King memorial inscription makes him look 'arrogant'

Hi everyone.  This will be fun.  We've got a lot of good questions and thoughts coming in.  People care a lot about this memorial, which is wonderful.  Onward!  

Rachel, how could this possibly have happened? How is it that, in the years of planning for a *granite* monument that size, there was not more care in 1) deciding on appropriate quotes to be chiseled onto the monument; and 2) making sure the quote was an accurate representation of what MLK actually said? Out of all of his beautiful speeches and writing, someone thought "I was a drum major" deserved pride of place? This has all the hallmarks of a school project hurridly finished the night before the due date, with ample help from the Internet.

Hello!  You express my feelings on the subject perfectly.  The man loved words and chose his carefully.  This is how we are planning to remember him for generations to come.  I do not believe you could get away with this kind of quote modification in a middle-school paper.  Gene Weingarten and Michael Ruane's piece this morning is about how it happened, though I hope a fuller explanation is coming. 

This memorial is a disaster. It looks like something the Russians put up to honor Lenin or Stalin in Moskow. Why do you think that the memorial is wonderful

Oh, sorry!  I meant it is wonderful that so many people care so much.  Incidentally, there is a statue in what was East Berlin of Marx and Engels; it means something totally different now than when it was originally put up during the Communist era.  I think that's sort of beautiful--that history itself has commented on the statue. 

Ms. Manteuffel: Can you comment on what, from an architectural point of view, distinguishes the King memorial from Socialist Realism sculpture that used to be popular in the old Soviet Union and in Maoist China? I'm no expert on what monuments should look like, but this one looks to me like one that might be made of King if he'd been the longtime leader of a Soviet bloc country instead of the primary figure in the American civil rights movement.

Ooh boy, I sure can't comment on this.  It didn't say Soviet to me, but I'm not at all familiar with the style.  Here's Philip Kennicott's post review from an arts perspective. 

For example, the Lincoln Memorial had a typo.

Yep!  Thanks for pointing this out.

I think Ms Angelou is guilty of what psychiatrists call "transference" as no one could be more arrogant than she. Bless Dr King and all he stood and died for.

I'm not sure how to parse this.  Angelou wasn't calling anyone arrogant.  She said the truncated quote being attributed to King made him look arrogant, which he was not. 

about misquoting famous people, from Tuesday's New York Times

It could have been in the style of that toga-wearing statue of George Washington in the the Smithsonian. The MLK memorial, however, joins the short list of truly bad art works dedicated to great men.

I had forgotten about shirtless Zeus-Washington!  Thank you. 

Yes, of course it makes King look arrogant; what would you expect when it was done by an artist from a totalatarian country such as China. I think if an American artist had done it, it would have looked like the man we admired.

This is referring to King's image in the memorial.  I don't think the artist edited the quotes. 

I appreciate the family's approval of the statue, but I think it's inappropriate to have the statue made in China. That's just wrong, lazy and wrong!!! MLK deserved better from America.

Your last sentence says it all. 

If your pride is in your cause, certainly it is possible. I don't see arrogance. But this is a different world from the one I came in to in 1941. Perhaps we have changed. If so, it is lesser than it was.

Hm!  King certainly felt the 1941 world needed some changes.

I don't think the misquote makes King look arrogant. However, it DOES make no sense, and is confusing, as he, ya know, never made that statement.

Another point.  Also, it seems to be in the past tense. 

Is there any news on whether there are actual plans to correct the quote? And thanks for calling the mangled words to everyone's attention to begin with!

Thank you so much!  This has been really exciting.  I haven't heard about plans to change it from anyone who could get it done at this point. 

When I heard the memorial was done by a Chinese artist, I was shocked. How could someone who lives in China of all countries understand the persona and inlfuence King had to such an extent that it changed our laws. No person such as King could do that in China. I understand that there were African-American artists who were more than capable of designing the memorial. What gives? Why a Chinese artist from a Communist country? Unbelievable.

I don't know if this is applicable to the particular sculptor, but I can certainly see how someone who lives in China of all countries would appreciate King's influence on the world. 

I totally agree with the first poster. And I DO like what Ms. Angelou had to say: too bad. She is correct. I shake my hand at this. This is an awful quote. Even if it was the whole quote. If it*was* the whole quote, it would be better, but still, there's so much else to take from ! wow.

I like what she said too!  Immediate and devastating deployment of moral authority.  I thought I was mad.

Would the following be both grammatically, and historically correct?: "....I was a drum major for justice, .... for peace, ..... for righteousness"

I wouldn't say so.  I'm not concerned that they smushed three sentences into one.  I'm not sure how anyone could read the speech and think he actually meant what it says on the memorial.  It is a long argument, and he takes awhile defining his terms.  Read the speech.  It's clear he thinks of the drum major as someone puffed up and arrogant.  He likens it to a feeling of racial superiority.  He says that at his funeral, the eulogizers shouldn't mention things like his Nobel Prize.  That would be the drum-major instinct, talking about prizes and where he went to college.  

He does not want to be a drum major, in the speech.   

That's what people should be talking about. The Mall was never intended to be full of memorials...they should have left it at the Washington Monument, and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. Done.


This is more of a comment than a question, but I'd just like to express gratitude that this issue is getting attention -- despite what Twitter tells us, shorter does not always = better, and sometimes meaning is lost entirely in a poorly executed abridgment. Thank you for reminding us of this.

Thank YOU. 

I haven't seen the memorial in person, but is it implicit that the controversial text is, in fact, a quote? Regardless, since we are looking at all cap text, can the "I" become "HE" (i.e., clearly not the quote) and the rest of us can move on the more ridiculous concerns - such us the attempt to make this monument into Red Scare 2011?

Almost all the text on the memorial is a quote from him.  The walls behind have the year and place where he was when he said/wrote.  He never said HE was a stone of hope in a mountain of despair, either.  It would be somewhat more correct to say, "he was," or just "drum major for..."  but again, he specifically asks us, in the speech, not to remember him that way. 

Don't you find it a wee bit hypocritical for Angelou to denounce the inscriptions when she didn't attend any of the meetings of the committee she was on to select them?

Not sure if I do.  The 2007 press release from the Council of Historians (which she is on) had an expanded version of the quote. 

Who even knows what a drum major is? I think it is one of his least accessible quotes.

While the drum major quote is inane and some inscribed quotes on the walls are quite banal (though accurate), this is totally par for the course. I wish that for once people would celebrate a new memorial instead of tearing every aspect to shreds. In this particular case, I also believe there were online commenters waiting to see what "issues" could justify their instinctive dislike of an MLK memorial. There was no question that they'd hate it, they were looking for rationalizations to do so. That's why your comment and others have been so eagerly snatched up.


Martin Luther King, Jr.'s arms always were reaching out to encompass people, his hands held upward to express his openness, his eyes filled with passion and compassion. His memorial conveys none of his love of people and justice; rather, it stands as an emotionless piece of granite with drawn lips and crossed arms, closing out the world around him. What a travesty.

Many people are saying this. 

It is offensive that the King family charged licensing fees of over $800,000 for the use of his image and words. The family is not without means and this just seems greedy. Perhaps, the monument should have been to the civil rights movement and included references to other giants such as Marshall, Parks, Abernathy and, yes, Jackson. And the reason for not focusing just on Rev. King placed at his children's feet.

Another view. 

Stop this crap about China. Some US committee chose ALL of this: stone, design, inscriptions

We have another ten minutes in which to resolve this issue. 

I don't like the way MLK is portrayed. I like the idea of him coming out of the stone, but his expression and his arms crossed...it makes him look horrible. The man didn't seem to be that way, angry all the time. I don't think he was (but really, what do I know?). It just seems not to make him seem important, just makes him seem angry. Jefferson and Lincoln seem pretty powerful and almost regal. Not so for MLK. And that's a shame.

Another vote against the optics. 

I agree. The key issue here is not whether ellipses should have been used, or whether the sculptor was Chinese. The key issue is that we have truncated a quote to the point that King seems to be bragging about being the type of person he despised. As you point out, his definition of "drum major" really translated into "self-absorbed jerk." Angelou is right: This cannot stand.

Thank you for this!  And saying it so much more quickly than I did.  I am sure "Redskins Defense" is a hilarious joke I don't get.

Honestly, I don't dislike the idea of a memorial (I'm a previous commenter in this chat), but 1) I don't go to the memorials, my respect for MLK is in what he did, not pieces of concrete, and 2) I think that we should be celebrating il-Haj Malik El-Shabazz as well!!

I like this point!  Invisible memorials to King everywhere his life changed ours. 

I hope I'm not too late. Much reference is made to the fact that sculpture was made in China. Don't forget that Chinese stone masons were brought to this country to assemble and finish the project. They were paid Chinese wages, not U.S. wages. Remember, Dr. King was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers strike for better working conditions. That should distress us all - in addition to paying the license fee to the family.

Another good point!  Thanks for making it. 

This was great.  Thanks so much, everyone.  If you get a chance, check out the memorial in person.  The crowds are part of it, too. 

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