The MLK Memorial: A Misunderstood Quote is Not a Quote At All

Matt Kailey is a transman living in Denver, Colorado, and an author, public speaker, and trainer on transgender issues. He blogs at Tranifesto. In his ideal world, no one would be equal to anyone else – everyone would just be equal.
When I read Renee’s recent post about Maya Angelou and the paraphrasing of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I was going to comment. Then I thought, “Hey, I can just write a guest post!” And so I shall.

Any talk of Dr. King reminds me of the night he was assassinated – because, truth be told, I knew little about him before that time. I had turned thirteen a month before Dr. King was killed, and I was a white female attending a predominantly white junior high school.

I don’t recall Dr. King ever being mentioned in any of my classes – but back then, we didn’t study current events in school, let alone any politically controversial figures, and Dr. King would certainly have been considered that. In addition, I was lost in my own little world of teenaged troubles – not enough boys and not enough clothes and not being rich and not being popular. I was about as far from politically conscious as anyone could get and still be breathing.

My parents taught me what little I knew about Dr. King. They did their best to make sure that I knew who he was and why what he was doing was not just important, but absolutely essential to the future of the country and the world. Their own civil rights mentor had been Whitney Young, who they had come to know at the University of Nebraska in Omaha and who later went on to direct the National Urban League and the National Association of Social Workers.

They knew Young personally, so the stories they told of him stuck with me. They admired Dr. King, but had no personal stories to tell, so his name and his purpose were merely ideas in my mind.

What I do remember first hand was the night he was killed. My mother was in tears, when a woman came to the door selling something or collecting for a charity. My mom said, “What are you doing? Don’t you know that Martin Luther King is dead?” The woman said, “Who?” My mother slammed the door in her face, then turned to me and said, “I don’t believe it. Who doesn’t know who Martin Luther King is?”

A lot of people, apparently. I went on to learn a great deal more about Dr. King throughout my life. I am certainly no expert, but I know enough about the man and about his style of oratory to know that the paraphrased quote that is to go on his memorial reflects an entirely different meaning from the actual quote from which it is taken.

So I, like many who commented, agree with Dr. Angelou. The quote should either be used in its entirety, in the way that it was spoken, or another quote should be chosen. The quote as paraphrased is not what Dr. King would have said, and it is not what he was about.

I don’t know if he can be sufficiently memorialized, but I believe that he must be memorialized. In this world of the Internet and reality TV, where anyone can be “famous” for nothing more than a muscular body or a low-cut dress, where Bristol Palin can become an expert on sex education and abstinence, and where Joe the Plumber can become a political pundit, we absolutely have to remember the people with intelligence, purpose, and vision who have made a difference in our world. We have to remember the people who transcended their own private lives and concerns for the betterment of society as a whole.
We have to remember them – and prove to the world of the future that they existed. Even if it can’t be done sufficiently, we have to do the best that we can – and a misunderstood and paraphrased quote is not the best that we can do. 

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