Did Martin Luther King Jr.’s Quote Really Have to be Shortened to Fit on His Memorial?

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Ever since the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial was unveiled last year, it’s been lambasted for paraphrasing a famous quote of King’s on its north side. The Washington Post explains:

Imagining his eulogy, King used the conditional tense: “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.”

But after the architect and the sculptor thought the stone would look better with fewer words, a shortened version was put on, composed of just 10 words with a heavy staccato beat. It was no longer a conditional statement; it was a flat assertion: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

Today, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered the quotation to be corrected, but ever since I first heard about this I wondered just why the quote had to be so badly shortened in the first place. Did the original really not fit? That’s ultimately an aesthetic judgment, since obviously the carved letters could be made small enough to make room for just about anything. But what if the letterforms were roughly the same size as the ones currently on the monument? As a public service, the photoshopped image below shows what it would look like — though I still had to chop off the final sentence to get it all in. Now you can decide for yourself.

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is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

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