Every once in a while, we are reminded of the power of words—even small, seemingly innocuous words. I’m referring to the controversy over the quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. that appears on his monument in Washington, D.C. It reads, “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.” Five months ago, Rachel Manteuffel, a young Washington Post staffer, wrote that something seemed wrong about the inscription, which made the civil-rights leader “look like something he was not: an arrogant jerk.” It turned out the architects had edited King’s words, turning a nuanced, conditional statement into a prideful boast—the opposite of what he meant. Last week the U.S. government sided with the critics and ordered the quote changed.
Since the words are carved in stone, that’s a big deal. But as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” On Feb. 4, 1968, Dr. King delivered a sermon called “The Drum Major Instinct,” warning of the evils that flow from our desires for recognition. This impulse to be out front leads to envy and excess, he said, and to racism, when one group decides it is superior to another. But this instinct can be useful if we harness it to a desire to excel at good works. Turning to thoughts of his funeral, he said, “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.” So let’s get the chisels out and strike a blow for the power of words, even small ones. There’s none more powerful than if.