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Henningsen: Monumental Deceptions

03/28/12 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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(Host) This time of year many school children and families visit our nation's capital. Teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen suggests that visitors would be wise to approach our national shrines with care.

(Henningsen) Have you ever noticed that, in their Washington D.C. memorials, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. are surrounded by words? Words on the walls surround the statues of Jefferson and Lincoln; words on the statue itself define King. And surely that's appropriate. Their words made our nation, preserved it, and summoned Americans to meet its highest ideals. Those words connect us to our past by recalling us to our founding ideals and enduring principles. Every American should visit these memorials at least once, if only to remember that, alone among the world's peoples, ideas are what make us a nation.

But what happens when those words are misleading; the past they depict inaccurate? Last August we learned that designers changed the central quotation on the King Memorial in order to fit the size of King's statue. That quotation reads, "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." To many people the inscription is both misleading and pejorative. Poet Maya Angelou said it makes King look, "like an arrogant twit."

The quotation does sound self-congratulatory, especially when we consider that what King actually said, in a sermon not long before his death, was a warning about the evils of self-promotion. Here's the actual quotation: "[I]f 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."

What a difference "if" makes. King was preaching humility, not claiming greatness. The message of the monument reverses his intent.

Across the Tidal Basin Jefferson, too, is surrounded by words, among them a stirring statement condemning slavery. "Nothing," it proclaims, "is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free." Uplifting stuff - until you find the original source, a partial autobiography Jefferson wrote in 1821. Here's the actual quotation: "Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. 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."

Here again, the memorial's designers edited language to suit their purposes. Here again the edited quote contradicts the original meaning. Jefferson wasn't an abolitionist; he was profoundly ambivalent about slavery. Although he worshipped freedom as an ideal, he couldn't imagine sharing it with black people and never freed his slaves. But designers of the monument sought to convey an American ideal, not a more troubling and more provocative American reality.

Washington's memorials present a selective version of the past, an editing that reflects how later Americans viewed these great men, or wanted to view them, or thought we ought to view them. Too often, official monuments present a past that we'd like to believe, not a reality we must struggle to understand.
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