What MLK said

September 1, 2011

I had an English professor who used to get
deeply annoyed whenever students would cite some literary passage but not
bother to quote it exactly. I recall him telling us, "Look, if you're going to
quote somebody, get it right." One could not pretend to be a serious student of
literature if one didn't care enough about language to get the quotations
right.

When I'm tempted to quote a line or passage from
memory, or figure I've got the words close enough, that professor's words nudge
me to take the trouble to look the passage up. Often the original is not quite
how I remembered it, and often it differs from what I remembered in significant
ways. There's a difference, after all, between "Money is the root of all evil"
and what the Bible actually says: "The love of money is the root of all evil."

Maya Angelou is among those who have pointed out that Martin Luther King Jr. did not
exactly say, "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness"--though
those words are now engraved on one side of his statue at the new MLK memorial
in Washington.

The memorial's version of King's words make him
seem like an "arrogant twit," Angelou complains--as if he exulted in his
leadership of the civil rights movement. In fact, those words were part of a
sermon in which he was criticizing the human impulse to stand out from the
crowd, to draw attention to oneself and look like the "drum major."

The sermon is one of King's most memorable
statements about the importance of following Jesus in a life of service, rather
than seeking glory for oneself. He speaks of Jesus redefining the "norm of
greatness" as service to others.

As
the sermon came to a close, King admitted that like everybody else he had the
vain desire to be important, but he hoped that this failing would be redeemed
by serving a Christlike cause:

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.

Yes, if you're going to quote MLK, do it right.