As he helped spruce up a school in D.C. to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr., President Obama said Monday the true meaning of a quote that’s being revised on the city’s new King memorial is that everyone can work for social justice.
“I know there’s been a lot of controversy lately about the quote on the memorial and they’re changing it and making some modifications,” Mr. Obama said at the Browne Education Center. “But if you look at that speech talking about Dr. King as a drum major, what he really said was that all of us can be a drum major for service, all of us can be a drum major for justice. There’s nobody who can’t serve.”
A quote carved in stone on the memorial to King on the National Mall has been criticized for not accurately reflecting the civil rights leader’s actual words. It reads, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
What King actually said two months before his assassination in 1968 was: “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.”
Poet Maya Angelou said the paraphrased quote was taken out of context and made the civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner sound like “an arrogant twit.”
Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar has decided to have the quote changed, but it’s not clear how much the revision will cost or who will pay for it. Mr. Salazar has given the National Park Service a month to consult with the King Memorial Foundation, family members and others.
The president said it’s especially important for people to volunteer for community-service projects during tough economic times.
“Whether you’re seven or six or whether you’re 76, then you can find opportunities to make an enormous difference in your community,” Mr. Obama said. “And at a time when the country has been going through some difficult economic times, for us to be able to come together as a community, people from all different walks of life, and make sure that we’re giving back, that’s ultimately what makes us the strongest, most extraordinary country on Earth … because we pull together when times are good, but also when times are hard.”
As he picked up a paint brush, the president urged volunteers who were helping him to “make sure that I’ve got some very clear lines, and I’ll try to stay within them.”
The president and first lady also were to attend a King celebration Monday night at the Kennedy Center.
The frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, said the King holiday is “an occasion to reflect on the legacy of an outstanding American.”
“Dr. King not only believed in the fundamental truth that we are all made in God’s image, he fought for that truth in a campaign that brought our country closer to fulfilling its historic promise of liberty and justice for all,” Mr. Romney said in a statement. “The United States has made enormous strides toward racial equality in the decades since Dr. King’s death, but we must never rest until all people are judged, in his immortal words, not ‘by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’”