Sorry for the Sloppy Sound Bite
“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” – Amos 5
If you visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC, you will no longer see the quotation “”I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
It was there when the statue was unveiled in 2011, but it has since been removed. Why? Because it turns out he never said it.
What he actually said was this: “”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.” Dr. King said those memorable words in a 1968 sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church just two months before his assassination.
It was the writer Maya Angelou who spoke out against the shortened quotation on the statue, pointing out that there is a big difference between saying, “If you want to say that I was a drum major…” and saying “I was a drum major…”
The first statement has the self-perspective and humility Dr. King was known for. The shortened version, in Angelou’s opinion, made him look egotistical. “He had a humility that comes from deep inside,” she explained. “The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
I’m grateful for the great writers like Maya Angelou, who care so deeply about other people’s words that they defend them against the sloppy editing of history. Sometimes, in our desire for a sound bite or a slogan, we sacrifice meaning, nuance and depth.
But sometimes, we enter into a public conversation. We stand corrected. We say we are sorry. As Dr. King once said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude.”
And so, as a people, we learn. We repair the memorial. We remove the shortened quote. We correct the mistake. But we don’t forget we made it. We keep the memory and the conversation alive.
Dear God, we confess that sometimes we cut for convenience sake. We replace righteous words with rubbish. We are sorry for our sloppy slogans. Supplant our sound bites with ever flowing streams. Amen.
Lillian Daniel, author of When “Spiritual But Not Religious” is Not Enough, has a chapter in the new anthology, What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most. Follow her on twitter @lillianfdaniel.