The new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is not just the King-in-Carbonite monolith that has caused so much controversy. There is much more to the National Mall’s latest addition, including inscriptions in marble of quotes from the martyred civil rights leader’s writings and speeches. There are more than a dozen examples of his oratory, a quotation from King’s 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” and an excerpt from King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1964.
Among them, this:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
But Rev. King didn’t say it. Theodore Parker, an influential and eloquent Boston minister and abolitionist, did. King never pretended otherwise; it was one of his favorite quotes, and he used it often, but he usually credited its originator.
King’s admirers, however, have transferred credit for the statement from the forgotten minister to the celebrated one, not intentionally, to be sure, but carelessly, lazily, and unjustly. Among those perpetrating this historical plagiarism by proxy, author and historian Jamie Stiehm recently pointed out, is Barack Obama. According to Obama biographer David Remnick, Parker’s words are the president’s “favorite quotation;” he even had it sewn into the rug in the Oval Office when it was redecorated last year. Obama also cites King as the quote’s author.
Why should we care? I know that there is a prevalent sentiment that the lives, reputations and accomplishments of the deceased can be manipulated, distorted and slandered with impunity (since they cannot defend themselves), but it is still wrong. Martin Luther King has much to support his fame and memory; Parker has little by comparison. What he has, however, he deserves. Admirers of King should not seek to burnish their hero’s legacy with wisdom he borrowed from others, and to intentionally, or negligently, allow a misattribution to stand in marble where it will be viewed by millions will turn a mistake into a lie.
The mistake should be corrected, on the President’s rug, on the memorial, in the quotation books, in our memories and minds. Evocative quotes are gifts from past sages, writers, orators, and wits to their successors and future generations. All that is required in fairness and gratitude is proper attribution, as well as the small measure of immortality that such memorable words convey.
Martin Luther King would not have wanted to steal this from Theodore Parker, and neither should we.