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MLK memorial crushes the poetry – and meaning – of Martin Luther King Jr.

The MLK memorial is a poem poorly translated. Why paraphrase? Across the mall, every word of Lincoln’s second inaugural address is carved in stone without an ellipsis to mar its poetry.

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I approached the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington with a set of expectations.

This would be a monument to the power of words as much as it would be a memorial to a man. I wanted poetry made dimensional. I wanted the cadences and rhythms of his voice to resonate through stone or water or light. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

This is not just one of the most famous speeches in American history, in many ways it’s our national anthem. It’s the Langston Hughes poem, “I, too, Sing America,” updated. It’s the song of a generation.

I don’t remember exactly where I was when I heard the news that Dr. King was shot. But I remember the faces of my parents. The sadness would come later – these were faces twisted in anger. And I, just 10 years old, was afraid that every leader in our country who made sense was going to end up shot. I was a child of the sixties.

The MLK memorial is a poem poorly translated, which may have something to do with the fact that it was designed by a sculptor in China. The monument features two ideas in writing, both paraphrases of quotes from King. One reads: “I was a drum major for peace, justice and righteousness.” Poet Maya Angelou says the paraphrase makes King “look like an arrogant twit.”

The full quote is from a sermon in 1968, in which King is actually preaching against the lead-the-parade instinct of self-importance and superiority. He says, “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.”

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