Monumental Lesson in Paraphrasing
A few chosen words mean a lot -- especially on a national monument.
—Roy Peter Clark, Poynter Institute
Sunday, October 16, [2011,] is the date for the hurricane-delayed dedication ceremony for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Yesterday, distinguished news editor Roy Peter Clark weighed in on a controversy over this inscription on the monument:
I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.
The controversy is not about the omission of the Oxford comma. Clark joins Maya Angelou and others in believing that the quote was poorly edited and is misleading. Ed Jackson Jr., the project’s architect, concedes that design constraints partly determined the handling of the quote but believes the paraphrase is appropriate for the monument’s purposes and has no plans to undertake a correction.
The quote is from King’s 1968 “Drum Major Instinct" sermon, text and audio for which is available under the “King Resources” section of the King Institute website. Delivered only two months before King’s death, the sermon is obvious source material for a memorial: it includes King’s own thoughts on how he would prefer to be eulogized if people want to celebrate him as a “drum major.” And, clearly, people do.
The biggest problem I see in the edited version of the quote is not the overall truncation, the lack of context, or the omission of if. It’s the retention of the personal pronoun. King was instructing others on how he wished them to communicate his “drum major” role if they desired to claim that role for him. As a paraphrase, “He was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness,” would have better captured King’s wishes (though Jackson might argue that capturing King’s wishes is not the point of the monument).
As Tim Krepp indicates, the inaccurate quote is in good company among our national monuments. In light of the didactic purpose of national monuments, how should media and communications ethics be applied ? Would you have been comfortable signing off on this paraphrase, editors?
08/01/2013 UPDATE: AP reports that a correction is in progress. Sculptor Lei Yixin is removing the inscription and replacing it with horizontal grooves that match the existing design. The cost to fix this poor paraphrase: more than $700,000.
Image courtesy of DVIDSHUB.