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Misquoting King: The truth and MLK's statue

January 20. 2013 3:50PM

On June 4, 1940, the British evacuation at Dunkirk concluded. In the preceding three months, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium had fallen to Hitler. The German army was days away from Paris. Britain's new prime minister reached deep within his soul, took to the airwaves, and rallied an island nation on the brink of invasion, saying, "we shall fight on the beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets and hills."

Or that's how the U.S. Park Service might put it were we to erect a Winston Churchill memorial today. Churchill never said that quote. To use the words of numerous stories on last month's decision to change an inaccurate quote on the Martin Luther King Jr. statue in Washington, it was a "paraphrased quotation." Never mind that there is no such thing. Just go with it. It's mostly true. Kinda.

The King statue displays these words on one side: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." They are displayed among real quotes from King. But King never uttered that quote. He said: "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. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter."

What a difference. Erased was not only the context, but the eloquence. Martin Luther King Jr. without eloquence is like James Bond without the women, wit and martinis. Bond would be just another spy; King just another preacher. Instead of "Bond, James Bond," it would be, simply, "James Bond." The style makes so much difference.

Even the MLK memorial's official page on the National Park Service website acknowledges that King's message inspired because it was delivered "through the means of his powerful gift of speech and eloquent writings." (That's an actual quote.) As is this, from Churchill: "we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

In presenting a paraphrase as King's actual words, the memorial did more than mutilate King's style. It undermined the truth. King never said those words because he would never say them. To misrepresent the words is to misrepresent the man. And to do so in an official government presentation is to mislead the people.

We rely on the state to be an impartial arbiter of the truth. If the stone-chiseled words on a government monument are no more accurate than what can be found on Wikipedia, it further shrinks our already diminished faith in America's institutions. As Abraham Lincoln said, "Keep it real, yo." Or something like that.

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