Editors have this sort of nightmare all the time: The one about the big typo—far surpassing the heart-attack-inducing "Beloved Aunt" obit miscue— that goes out to press.
This time around, we're talking about the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in DC and the fault and shame lands squarely on an architect, the national park people, and, I suppose, eventually all Americans.
The Wash Post reports of a mega-mistake written in stone on the new monument to King:
The quotation reads: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." On first reading, it seems an odd choice, both for its obscurity — "I have a dream," for example, is nowhere in the monument — but also its inscrutability. What did Dr. King mean by "drum major"? Without context, this part of the monument is baffling.
With context, as a column by The Post's Rachel Manteuffel on the opposite page last week made clear, it gets worse. Read the 5,000-word sermon from which the quote was taken, and you find that the import is almost the opposite of what the civil rights leader intended. The words on the monument, edited not by a historian but by an architect concerned about space, are a ham-handed truncation of what Dr. King said, turning a conditional statement into a boast. The sermon is complex and open to interpretation, but one thing is clear: Dr. King does not claim to be a drum major for anything. The whole speech, in fact, is about the evils of self-promotion.
"The Drum-Major Instinct," which Dr. King delivered on Feb. 4, 1968, is about the folly of wanting to feel important, of seeking recognition and praise. That is a basic human impulse, he said, but it is dangerous and can lead to many social ills, including bigotry: "A lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct, a need that some people have to feel that they are first and feel that their white skin ordained them to be first."
Previous controversy over the memorial focused over the fact that it was outsourced to a Chinese sculptor (whose previous work included statues of Mao Zedong) using Chinese stone and, apparently, some really bad history books.