Outrages: Monumental black history, in and out of context

David Martosko Executive Editor
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If you haven’t been to Washington, D.C. yet, you’d better make the trip soon. Before long, scaffolds and tarpaulins might take an imposing stone structure out of public view for a while.

Why? The architects and sculptors got an inscription wrong. Sort of.

I’m not just talking about the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, but that’s a good place to start.

“I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” the chiseled letters on King’s new monument say.

If that doesn’t sound like the selfless civil-rights martyr you learned about in school, you get a gold star.

“That was not what dad said,” a frustrated Martin Luther King III told CNN shortly after the unveiling. Maya Angelou, the former United States Poet Laureate who knew King well, said the quotation made him sound like “an arrogant twit.”

Was King’s son right? Of course. The monument’s planners took a famous remark out of context. Here’s what King actually said during a 1968 sermon in Atlanta, two months to the day before he was killed:

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, ladies and gentlemen — if you want to say 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.”

That’s completely different. No wonder Maya Angelou was so annoyed. They finally gave a black man a high-profile memorial, and they couldn’t even get the context right.

Thomas Jefferson’s descendants never complained much about the chiseled quotations on the walls of his memorial in D.C. But maybe some of us should.

Visitors to the Jefferson Memorial can read this, among other quotables thought worthy in 1943, on the third marble panel: “Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”

As with the King memorial, context is everything. Jefferson wrote the first sentence, the one about “despotism,” in his 1781 “Notes on the State of Virginia.” The rest came some 40 years later in his 1821 autobiography, and the monument’s designers lopped off the portion betraying Jeferson’s character near the end of his life.

“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free,” he wrote. “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.”

“It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably,” Jefferson continued, “and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be pari passu [with equal footing] filled up by free white laborers.”

Don’t believe Jefferson, in hindsight, was a segregationist? Can’t imagine that he wanted former slaves deported back to Africa? It’s right there in his own handwriting.

We often try too hard to make heroes out of mere mortals, especially when it’s politically expedient to do so. The texts were chosen for the Jefferson Memorial while Franklin Roosevelt was president, so some of the others sympathetic with the New Deal — including excerpts fom the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson didn’t write himself.

The 28-foot-tall statue at the King memorial’s heart, likewise, was clearly meant to make the man himself larger than life. His humility was dissonant with the monument’s heroic features, but no matter. He was a baton-wielding drum major.

Fourteen other King quotations are chiseled into the 450-foot-long granite wall surrounding that statue. Now ask yourself why you can’t find a single excerpt from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech etched in stone there, or on the pillar itself.

I think an obvious choice would have been: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

But then again, I don’t find it politically advantageous to perpetuate a system of entrenched entitlements and set-asides that depend entirely on some Americans’ skin color.

See where I’m headed?

Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day today in strange, strange times. With a 15.8 percent unemployment rate, black Americans — more than 2.86 million of them, anyway — aren’t exactly tasting the fruits of the civil rights movement’s labor.

In the landmark report he wrote for the U.S. Department of Labor in 1965 while a young man serving as an assistant secretary, the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that only 23.6 percent of “Negros” were born out of wedlock in 1963. (That figure was just 16.8 percent in 1940, roughly the same as for whites in 1990.)

Moynihan prepared the report in King’s heyday, and before President Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty and the rest of the Great Society programs that led America’s poorest minorities to where they are today.

By the end of 2010, fully 72 percent of black babies in America were born to unmarried mothers. No wonder the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan reports that 38 percent of black children in the United States now live in poverty.

Putting mortals on pedestals didn’t stop with King any more than it stopped with the reinvention of Jefferson. In our cultural civil-rights cauldron, it continued — and continues — in the way our elites have elevated those who claim to be King’s successors.

Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Van Jones, the Congressional Black Caucus and the New Black Panthers, I’m talking about you.

Look at the outrageous social-science statistics that describe what it’s like to be black in America today. And then try to think of anything this nation’s self-anointed “black leadership” has done to make things better — for ordinary black Americans, that is, not for themselves.

On Saturday I reported on a long-lost 1967 recording of King that a Cleveland, Ohio art teacher rescued from a library trash pile. Archival TV footage from the days surrounding that speech show King winning job concessions from a grocery chain and an ice-cream dairy. The dairy deal alone gave inner-city blacks in Cleveland access to $300,000 in salaries.

Forty-five years later, the question should be, “So what?”

Sharpton may be too busy hosting a show on MSNBC to notice, but the long-term benefits of civil-rights progress are hardly worth crowing about, if you can find any.

Last year the Chicago Urban League reported that black teen unemployment would approach 75 percent during the summer of 2011. And according to a study from labor economists at Miami University of Ohio and Trinity University in Texas, minimum wage increases are to blame.

Come again? For black males aged 16–24, they wrote in 2010, “each 10% increase in the minimum wage has decreased employment by 6.5%.”

The reality unfolds like this: When minimum wage rates go up, businesses can’t magically expand their supply of payroll dollars. Instead, they have to decide who gets the axe. And like it or not, young black men tend to be the employees with the least experience and the lowest skill levels.

So minimum wage hikes kill jobs for young blacks. When was the last time you heard anyone in the Congressional Black Caucus arguing against one? Like Sharpton, they’re usually too busy — planning for re-election, it seems — to care about what’s going on.

When we invent moments of history and ignore those few hard numbers that social science provides, we usually get what we deserve. In this case, though, we’re giving black Americans something they didn’t bargain for, and something the empty promises of “social justice” are sure to produce: another generational go-round with social inequality.

I’m a big fan of meritocracies. I don’t care what color you are, where you were born, which god (if any) you worship, if you’re gay or straight, or if you walk with a limp. But if you pin your hopes on a group of people who have a 50-year history of being unhelpful, don’t be surprised when things don’t turn out so well.

In his 1967 speech in Cleveland, King urged young blacks to “develop … red-rugged determination” and abandon their “segregated minds.”

Maybe getting a few words wrong on a stone tower is the least of modern America’s bastardizations of King’s life and work.

Would he be pleased with the state of black America today, or with his self-declared heirs’ stewardship over what he left?

I don’t think so. Do you?

David is The Daily Caller’s executive editor. Follow him on Twitter