Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial (Do words still matter?)

Every once in a while, I’m encouraged that other people think words matter as much as I do.
This week the Department of Interior agreed to fix a quote on the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington DC. While the idea for the quote is taken from a message King preached, it completely misrepresented what King intended when he spoke it.
The memorial current quotes King like this: “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.” In its current form it sounds like King is inflating his own importance. After all, once we think about such a statement we can’t help but think a person who says such a thing is rather full of themselves.
The actual words from the message read like this: “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 point of his message is to encourage service. He preaches from Mark 10 and deals with the text about the desire for James and John to sit at the side of Christ. They desired the place of honor. But King rightly points out that Jesus redirected their desire for greatness and importance: “And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important – wonderful. If you want to be recognized – wonderful. If you want to be great – wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.”
The message is the exact opposite of what the quote on the memorial seems to be saying. The quote does not in any way represent the message. And that is why many people stepped forward and questioned why it is on the monument in its current form.
All of this brings me back to my point – Words matter. And words in context matter. Properly understanding what is said, why it is said, and how we are meant to receive them all matter. In a post-modern world that thinks we can interpret things as we please and we do not have to worry about the intent of the author, it is nice to know some people still care deeply about the words and their intent.


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