It is carved in stone

An editor is a reader’s advocate.

The editor enhances the author’s communication with his or her reader. The editor does this by eliminating excess words;  substituting precise words for vague or wrong words; and correcting errors in grammar, composition, and punctuation.

While making these improvements, the editor must keep the author’s meaning and voice intact. The reader is not well served if the editor changes the author’s apparent intent.

Here’s an example of a routine business message that an editor has improved:

(Before editing) Please find enclosed the new schedule for September. We would like to thank the committee for the assistance it provided in developing the schedule.

(After editing) The September schedule is enclosed. Thank you for your contribution.

What if the editor only wanted to make the message short, even at the expense of the author’s meaning? For example:

(After butchering) The committee gave no help until September.

In that case, the misrepresented author would be embarrassed, and the misinformed reader would be poorly served. The editor who changed the meaning would probably be admonished.

What if the editor had misrepresented an iconic person, a historical figure who had led important change and who had inspired people around the world? And what if the audience were millions of people who would read the words for decades to come? What if the message had been chiseled in granite as part of a huge statue placed on the National Mall in Washington, DC?

That is the situation that has come to light with the unveiling of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial last weekend.

Among the quotations on the memorial is this one: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

The quote makes King sound as if he sang his own praises.

King’s actual words, at the end of a sermon about the foolishness of people drawing attention to themselves, were these: “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.”

A few decision makers drastically edited King’s words so the carving would fit the spot they had in mind for it. They changed the context.

As Rachel Manteuffel opined on August 25,“What makes this tragic is that King had the ability to say precisely what he meant, with enormous impact. In the speech, he is creating a bit of a straw man: If you see him as an attention-craver, a puffed-up drum major—if you call him out on this conceit, a weakness most people are prone to—then at least he would hope that you saw him doing it for the most noble causes.”

The poet Maya Angelou was a friend of King’s. She said the quote makes him appear arrogant. She said, “He had no arrogance at all . . . He had a humility that comes from deep inside. The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”

The new memorial is for the ages. It will be a place of reflection, a place for pilgrimages. As it stands now, it misrepresents the man in whose honor it was placed. It gives readers the wrong impression.

The message on the memorial is indeed short. It fits the spot.

And it should be corrected.


1 Comment

Filed under clear writing, editing, grammar

One response to “It is carved in stone

  1. I’m happy to post this excerpt from The Washington Post, Jan. 13, 2012:
    King Memorial inscription to be corrected, interior secretary orders

    Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ordered a correction to a badly mangled quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. inscribed in granite on the Tidal Basin memorial to the slain civil rights leader.
    Salazar said Friday that he has told the National Park Service to consult with the memorial foundation and the King family and to report back to him within 30 days with a plan to fix the carved excerpt that turned a modest and mellifluous phrase into a prideful boast . . .
    The paraphrase on the north face of the 30-foot-tall granite statue comes from a powerful and poignant 1968 sermon King delivered two months before his assassination. King spoke of the “drum major instinct” as the epitome of egotism, a self-centered view of the world that he denounced. Imagining his eulogy, King used the conditional tense: “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.”
    But after the architect and the sculptor thought the stone would look better with fewer words, a shortened version was put on, composed of just 10 words with a heavy staccato beat. It was no longer a conditional statement; it was a flat assertion: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
    Salazar said he thought the excerpt was not true to King’s character.
    “I do not think it’s an accurate portrayal of what Dr. King was,” Salazar said.
    From the moment it became public, the inscription has been a subject of derision, anger and mirth.
    Poet and author Maya Angelou, who had worked with King, told The Post that it made him sound like “an arrogant twit.” Martin Luther King III told CNN, “That was not what Dad said.” And Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert called it “to the point. Not Dr. King’s point, but still.”

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