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Yes, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in DC originally misquoted King

The memorial originally misquoted a line from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Drum Major Instinct” sermon.
Credit: AP
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is seen before an event marking the 10th anniversary of the dedication of memorial in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The third Monday in January is a federal holiday that honors the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Some people take the day to visit his memorial, which was added to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in August 2011.

Today, visitors of the memorial can find a quote on just one side of King’s statue. That’s because a quote on the other side was removed shortly after the memorial first opened.

THE QUESTION

Did the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial incorrectly attribute a quote to King?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, one of the quotes originally attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his memorial in Washington, D.C. was incorrect. That quote has since been removed from the memorial.

WHAT WE FOUND

When the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial opened in 2011, one side of King’s statue read, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” according to the National Park Service (NPS).

But that’s not a quote King actually said. It inaccurately paraphrased a quote from his 1968 “Drum Major Instinct” sermon in Atlanta. His original quote was, “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 the other shallow things will not matter.”

According to the NPS, the misquote drew backlash immediately after the memorial was first opened. Poet Maya Angelou said the text on the statue made King “look like an arrogant twit.”

King’s sermon was largely about the danger of personal ego, during which King said he wished to be remembered for trying to “give his life serving others” rather than for his awards or education. The NPS admits the quote originally on the statue was at odds with the message of the sermon it was supposed to reference.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) announced in December 2012 it would remove the quote from the statue rather than replace it — a decision it made “as the safest way to ensure the structural integrity of the memorial was not compromised.”

Lei Yixin, the statue’s sculptor, removed the quote in 2013, the NPS says.

King, a leader in the civil rights movement who contributed to its overall success, was assassinated just a few months after he gave the Drum Major Instinct sermon, in April 1968. While there are statues of other historical figures scattered throughout the National Mall, King is the only person who wasn’t a president to be individually honored with a major memorial on the Mall. 

More from VERIFY: No, not everyone celebrates the start of the new year on Jan. 1

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