A Misquote Etched in Stone

As PR professionals, we’re all too familiar with misquotes and quotes taken out of context. Whether it’s a statement we delivered ourselves, or something a client said during an interview, it’s tough to see a quote appear in print in a manner that wasn’t how you intended.

Typically, the course of action is to contact the reporter and kindly request that a correction be made (in the case of blatant misquotes), or perhaps to open a dialogue to better explain what you or the client meant (in the case of a quote taken out of context). Most reporters are usually willing to oblige, particularly in instances of their own error. And, thanks to the immediacy of the Internet, these changes can often be made before too much damage is done.

But what happens when a misquote is literally etched in stone?

On Monday, Martin Luther King Day, visitors to the newly-erected MLK monument in Washington, D.C., may be among the last to see what has been called a misquote of the late Dr. King. The inscription on the monument’s right side reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

The quote paraphrases a speech King gave at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on February 4, 1968, two months before he was assassinated. Many people, including poet Maya Angelou, have expressed concern that the quote, when paraphrased and taken out of its original context, makes Dr. King, a man lauded for his strength and humility, seem… downright arrogant. The original quote and surrounding context reads:

“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.”

On Friday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made the decision to have the quote changed, and gave the National Park Service 30 days to find an alternate quote. The National Park Service plans to work with the King Memorial Foundation and King family on this.

While changing something etched in stone is a much bigger undertaking than correcting an online quote, Salazar made the right decision in having the quote corrected, as context and connotation are often just as important as the words themselves.

Amanda Hoffman can be reached at ahoffman@sterlingpr.com. Follow her on Twitter @hoffmandy.

Photo credit: Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post