Poet and memoirist Maya Angelou made headlines a couple weeks ago for her understandable disappointment at the inscription on the back of the new Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in DC, for which Angelou was one of the consultants. The inscription in question, located on the back of the recently unveiled statue, reads "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." The original lines of King's sermon, however, offer a much different pronouncement, rich with self-awareness and nuances of tone, rhythm, and meaning that the inscription loses: "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."
Leaving out the "if" in the inscription, Angelou contests, makes King look like an "arrogant twit" and "an egotist." "He was," she says, "anything but that." While Angelou is right about the gross butchering that the inscription makes of the original, a radical misreading of King's intended meaning, sounding more like the handiwork of a drugged sign language interpreter racing to make due, Angelou is, however, wrong about what's wrong with it. It's not the conditional clause that's the issue. The inscription's real problem, to use a parlance familiar to anyone who has ever taken a creative writing class, is point of view.
The POV problem interestingly enough is embedded in the lines of King’s sermon. In the original, delivered in Feb. 1968 to congregants of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King gives a bravura sermon on the larger theme of what he calls, not without a sense of humor and an acute sense of his audience, "The Drum Major Instinct." For the climax of the sermon, King chose the conceit of his own funeral, introducing it this way: "[E]very now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral…And every now and then I ask myself, 'What is it that I would want said?'"
What follows thereafter is a list of things King would like said about him at this funeral, words he'd like to be remembered by, crescendoing with the lines about "peace" and "righteousness" which have been commandeered for the inscription. But in the lines directly preceding them, he begins the funeral scene referring to himself in the 3rd person: "I'd like somebody to mention [at my funeral] that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others." It’s a death-defying tightrope walk between humility and hubris, but after one more similar line in which King toggles between first person ("I'd like for somebody to say...") and third ("that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried..."), he switches, inscrutably, to first person: "I want you to say that I tried..."
Why he switches to the first person while in the funeral scene is unclear, but one educated guess might be that in the moment, in the heat of oration, he trusted his prodigious rhetorical instincts, trusted that his audience understood the scene he had set up for them, that he didn’t need to keep his syntax parallel, that he didn’t have to be a slave to literalism, to the rules of syntax his very scene had set out. Perhaps there was something that struck King as a bit grandiose or too morbid about saying his full name, first middle last suffix, that way. Whatever the case, Dr. King, dropped the third person, and switched to a more immediate first.
In short, King was not saying that he would say these things about himself at his own funeral. That would be impossible. In his hypothetical funeral scene, he wanted us, his congregation, to say them. And the whole problem with the inscription is encapsulated in that first word, indeed the first letter: "I." Were we to take King’s fictional scene literally, we should be the eulogizers, not him. We are the ones who should write in stone: “He was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” This might be the simple fix staring us in the face; it might only involve chiseling one letter and adding another.
While I agree with Angelou that the inscription grossly mischaracterizes King and his teachings, I disagree with her claim that he was "anything but" an egotist. It's not as simple as that. If anything, "The Drum Major Instinct" sermon was a moving and powerful admission of just how like us King really was, how susceptible he was to his worst instincts, to egotism and self-eulogizing, to his own drum majoring.
The most important thing to note is that, throughout the sermon, King doesn't exempt himself from the drum major instinct. "We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade." He was as prone to it as us: this was the real message, and his somewhat tongue-in-cheek self-eulogy, if it is anything, was a knowing embrace of that. His egotism lived alongside his humility. In the same breath that he asked his congregants not to mention his awards and accolades, he mentioned his own Nobel Prize. He tells his would-be eulogizers to say that he "tried to be right on the war question," leaving room for the notion that, yes, he could be wrong. Dr. King wants us, in other words, to remember him not for his achievements, but for his efforts.
Writing a script to be recited at your own funeral would have to rank very high on the list of acts of egotism. Why it doesn't come across as egotistical is a testament to King's skills as a rhetorician and his respect for the power of language. The sermon, like much of King's work, is by turns wise and self-deprecating, erudite and accessible, a nimble mingling of academic speak ("psychoanalysis") and lay references ("Cadillacs and Chryslers"), culminating, as so many of his greatest speeches, on a striking, visceral image driven home by means of a forceful, pounding parallel syntax.
Of course he knew that no one would recite these lines at his funeral, much less could he have imagined that they would be carved into a memorial in our nation's capital. Imagine someone taking the podium and saying: "Well, what can I say about Dr. King? I guess he tried to help people and tried to feed the hungry." We are not to take him so literally, and it is the literalism — the misunderstood literalism — which is at the heart of what's wrong with both the inscription and Angelou's well-meant, but still inaccurate complaint against it.
If only the committee had understood King's self-eulogy, a hypothetical, fictional vignette he used as a means of highlighting his message of effort over achievement, service over monuments, they might have understood why it is necessary to keep the third person point of view intact. If it were up to me, I'd have chosen another line from the Drum Major sermon for the memorial, one whose mix of hubris and humility still resonates with bitter irony against King's courageous, effortful life and his tragic end: "I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody."