Rep. John Lewis downplays King quote controversy

10:21 PM, Jan 14, 2012   |    comments
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  • Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta) said the controversial quote on the King Memorial is not a "radical departure" from what Dr. King really said.
  • Controversial drum major quote on King Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Morrow, GA -- Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta) defended the controversial words as they're written on the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"No, I never called for change," Rep. Lewis told 11Alive News before giving a speech at a King prayer breakfast at the National Archives of Atlanta in Morrow. "The memorial is beautiful and so appropriate."

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Interior ordered changes to the following quote that's carved into the granite block that includes King's likeness: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

The quote is from a sermon that Dr. King gave at the old Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in February of 1968, two months before his assassination.

But the quote is not quite right.

Here's what Dr. King really said in talking about his own legacy: "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."

Some critics, including poet Maya Angelou, argued the real quote shows he was a humble man, while the shorter version suggests that Dr. King was arrogant.

"I didn't see anything that was a radical departure from what Dr. King said in his speech so many years ago," Rep. Lewis said. "But for the sake of history and accuracy, I think the Interior Department is doing the right thing."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ordered that the quote be replaced. He's given the National Park Service and the King Memorial Foundation one month to resolve the controversy.

Viewers weighed in on 11Alive's Facebook page.

"I thought it was fine," wrote Christopher Lewis. "Don't see what all the fuss is about. You get the idea."

But Sheri Bassham took issue with the quote.

"You have to hear the speech in its entirety to understand that he was not a boastful man," she wrote. "He was very humble."

Saturday's King prayer breakfast was sponsored by the Concerned Black Citizens Coalition of Clayton County.

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