In Memphis, the city where the civil rights leader was assassinated in 1968, a decision has been made to re-name a nine-block section of Linden Avenue Dr. Martin Luther King Avenue. The city already has a section of Interstate 240 named for King, but the new section is more appropriate. Kind led a march on Linden Avenue during a sanitation workers’ strike just days before his death, and the street is located in a high-visibility area of Memphis; it’s parallel to Beale Street, a tourist destination, and it runs past the home court of the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team. A renaming ceremony is planned for April 4, the 44th anniversary of King’s death. About 900 U.S. cities have streets named for King.
The other news item involves the King Memorial, which was dedicated in Washington, D.C. last August.
The inscription on one side of the memorial reads, “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.”
It is a paraphrase from a sermon King gave about a month before his death, which ironically contradicts the point he was making with the sermon.
Celebrated poet Maya Angelou complained that it makes him sound like “an arrogant twit” as soon as the memorial was dedicated.
King’s son told CNN, “That’s not what Dad said.”
The sermon King gave used the “drum major instinct” as a theme to describe how people sought attention, recognition and a feeling of self-importance. He hoped to help people avoid taking actions for unworthy motives.
He told them, “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.”
The words on the monument present a very different tone.
It almost sounds like someone hired a Chinese sculptor to construct the monument, and he simply cut down the number of words to better fit the artistic aspects of the work. Actually, that is pretty much what happened.
What will be changed is the wording. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar set a 30-day deadline for the wording to be altered. Salazar directs the National Park Service, which administers the memorial. It was built by a non-profit group that will be responsible for making the changes.
If nothing else, the latest controversy will bring more attention to the Memorial – located between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials — and to the struggle against discrimination that occurred in our country. It’s the King Memorial, but it’s about the whole civil rights movement. Others are memorialized there, too, including Medgar Evers of Mississippi, and the four little girls killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
It’s a part of our history and heritage that must be remembered, and we need to get it right.