THE BLOG
01/20/2015 05:25 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

King Underquoted

If you visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., 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 let's not forget we made it. That way, we keep the memory and the conversation alive.

It's a conversation that the prophet Amos weighed in on thousands of years ago when he said "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

If you're interested in hearing my sermon on this, you can find it here.