Maya Angelou is right

“Content without context is pretext.”– Rev. Jesse Jackson

A National Park Service ranger stands by the King monument. Washington Post photo.

The longer is sinks in, the more distressed I become about the “drum major” quote on the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument in Washington DC.  The creators of that monument took a liberty with the truth that journalists could never take.   To do it on a historic monument in one of America’s most sacred spots is kind of appalling.

The back story is here.  Basically, the creators of the King monument shortened a quote from one of Dr. King’s sermons, and inscribed it on the monument.  Poet Maya Angelou complained that the shortened quote deprived it of context and made King seem like an “arrogant twit.”  She’s right.  But even if the changed quote hadn’t changed the meaning, it would still be wrong.

Journalism has a responsibility to use quotes within a measure of context.  The words have to be exactly right, or as honest a representation of accuracy as the journalist can make.  If the journalist is scribbling quotes in federal court, where no recording devices are allowed, it can be difficult to get every single word right every time.  But the journalist has to use his memory (and sometimes, share notes with competitors about wording) to make the quote as honest as possible.

Journalists can also eliminate stammering word repetitions.  When translating from another language, the quote is created in English.  Yet it’s still considered accurate.

I use TV to record quotes, which gives my audience an excellent sense of what newsmakers say.  Viewers see the lips flap, and they hear the words come out.  Yet I use my discretion as an editor to remove excess.  “With all due respect to my distinguished opponent…” may get eliminated before a politician slams his opponent.  It removes a mostly-unimportant element of context and gets to the heart of the argument with greater strength.

Calling for context: Dr. Maya Angelou

Historians have the same responsibility, but in a different sense.  Bob Woodward has made a living creating quotes in books as if he were there to listen to them.  He’s actually creating quotes based on the memories of persons who heard them.  Woodward is, presumably, painstaking when making notes on those who remember hearing the words, and presumably double-checks the wording with as many people as he can find to make the quotes as accurate as possible.  But there’s no way he’s getting the quotes right, word-for-word, as spoken at that time, every time.  There’s no way.  But it’s the honesty of the effort that redeems the work.

When I visit the Lincoln Memorial, I read the words inscribed in the monument.  Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is there, as is his second inaugural speech.  Both are there in their entireties.   When it was dedicated 90 years ago, the creators of the Lincoln Memorial made the decision to quote Lincoln’s speeches verbatim.  Nearly a century later, folks reading those words assume them to be word-for-word accurate. 

If you visit the King Center in Atlanta, you can see a large chunk of Dr. King’s “drum major” quote inscribed on an exhibit.  The quote is edited for length, but otherwise accurate.  The quote refers to the potential shallowness of tributes; it essentially says disregard my Nobel Prize. Forget the March on Washington.  If you want to pay me tribute, simply call me ‘a drum major for justice…’  The words are spoken by an essentially humble guy.

But the monument says “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”  There are no quotation marks.  But because it’s written in the first person, it implies those were words uttered by Dr. King.

The creators of the monument blamed space limitations for inscription.  They obviously dismissed the issue of strict accuracy.  Perhaps they didn’t consider the context until Dr. Angelou brought it up.  Thank goodness she did. 

Journalism could use a third-person paraphrase to describe what King said about himself:  “Dr. King said a eulogist could call him a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”  But the monument doesn’t do that. 

If the inscription isn’t removed or changed, generations of visitors to that monument will believe that Dr. King uttered those words about himself.  They’ll be wrong, and they’ll have gotten that impression from some sloppy work by folks who undoubtedly intended to accurately honor Dr. King.

Here’s an easy fix:  Change “I” to “He.”

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Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

3 thoughts on “Maya Angelou is right

  1. Randy Travis

    The stories I’ve read about this issue mention that Maya Angelou was on the committee to chose the words to be inscribed but never attended any of the meetings. If true, she passed up many opportunities to make sure Dr. King was properly quoted.

  2. CB Hackworth

    Randy, Dr. Angelou is 83 and although her mind is sharp as a tack, she has emphysema and that has slowed her down some. Also, she doesn’t fly, and so when she has to travel any distance from her home in North Carolina, it’s by bus. She certainly does speak what’s on her mind, and doesn’t hold much back, so I’m sure she made her opinion known as soon as she became aware of the incorrect quote. Regardless, I’m not sure I understand the point of your post. Are you defending the wording on the monument or blaming Dr. Angelou for not being on hand to proofread?

  3. Randy Travis

    CB, I’m certainly not defending the wording on the monument. When you edit something down you must maintain the essence of the quote. Clearly that was not done here. However, if my editor complained about a lazy edit without ever reviewing the story, the fault rests with both of us. Perhaps her position on this committee was honorary. Perhaps they didn’t send her the quotes for review. Perhaps they did and she didn’t read them carefully. But it sounds like this particular version of Dr. King’s quote was available for review before hammer and chisel met granite.


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