Friday 6 May 2011

Thought Picnic: MLK suffers another misquote

A pastime of quotes

When I was an adolescent I collected quotes, I had an old diary which was just well suited to recording quotes from many sources including newspapers. We had at least six daily newspapers and I voraciously devoured the content from the news to reviews of issues and opinion pieces.

It was a time that you could trust Nigerian newspapers to pay attention to quality of news, quality of copy, objective analysis and most of all proofreading, I suppose the phrase will be they were committed professions of the art of communication and journalism.

Now, I have always risked a level of facetiousness that has had some label me as pedantic, I will beg to differ; there is no pedantry in the verification and confirmation process, having an engineering education just compels you as a matter of course to be procedural and to avoid approximation when precision, exactness and accuracy is required.

Quotes awry

Once again on my Facebook news feed provided another gem for a blog which is topical as it is essential in the way we communicate on the social networking space.

A quote was posted thus: “If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

I had no reason to doubt this was spoken from the lips of Martin Luther King, Jr. but considering recent events about wrongly attributed quotes [1], I felt anything attributed should and must be scrutinised and verified, more so, I expect everyone to be alert to that fact and go the extra mile to ensure they are not caught in another urban legend of misinformation.

Trust, but verify

So, I searched for the quote on Google and it revealed a number of interesting points that I tried to highlight in the Facebook post I made to the author of that Facebook status. My Facebook entry appears within brackets the rest of the text serves as a running commentary.

[I think is essential following the quote attributed to MLK following Osama bin Laden's death to ensure that he is quoted correctly, completely and in context.]

I suppose I have already introduced the context of this blog, but this is how I tried to address the issue.

[The exact excerpt of what you have posted is - "If the Negro succumbs to the temptation of using violence in his struggle for justice, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate life of bitterness, and his chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos."]

I have emboldened the differences between the quote on Facebook and the original quote itself; whilst the context seems to have been maintained, it has been generalised and it has shifted from a struggle for justice to just the struggle.

Retracing the context

[The quote was specific about the Negro, hence the one you published being paraphrased should have said so.]

It is probably pedantic to dwell on the person of the Negro but I have opportunity in this blog to flesh out the issue and contend that there was more to this quote than had been offered and then for the changes made to the quote which itself had been used by others it has lost its literality, however, on reflection it had not become a paraphrase but at the same time it was incorrect because the specific context had changed.

[It was part of a longer speech delivered on the 3rd of April 1957, titled, Justice without Violence ]

Martin Luther King, Jr. had just returned from the Independence Day celebrations in Ghana and he gave an address to the Institute of Adult Education at Brandeis University for the Helmsley Lecture series and this quote appears towards the bottom of the second paragraph on the third page.

Giving the quote a body

[And when the Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project uses it, it publishes a much longer contextual quote of which you have published just a quarter.]

[The second in the list at this site ]

The authoritative archives [3] of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s works are kept at Stanford University and that is where one should go for anything attributed to the great man.

When using this quote it is placed in the context of the paragraph in which it was made.

Now the question that we face this evening is this: In the light of the fact that the oppressed people of the world are rising up against that oppression; in the light of the fact that the American Negro is rising up against his oppression, the question is this: How will the struggle for justice be waged? And I think that is one of the most important questions confronting our generation. As we move to make justice a reality on the international scale, as we move to make justice a reality in this nation, how will the struggle be waged? It seems to me that there are two possible answers to this question. One is to use the all [too] prevalent method of physical violence. And it is true that man throughout history has sought to achieve justice through violence. And we all know the danger of this method. It seems to create many more social problems than it solves. And it seems to me that in the struggle for justice that this method is ultimately futile. If the Negro succumbs to the temptation of using violence in his struggle for justice, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate life of bitterness, and his chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. And there is still a voice crying into the vista of time saying to every potential Peter put up your sword. And history is replete with the bleached bones of nations and communities that failed to follow this command.

Nuances of speech to text

I will not begin an exegesis the grammatical correctness of any of the text but it goes without saying and it the speech the use of “and” is conjunctive throughout the paragraph linking clauses and thoughts even though they inappropriately appear to commence sentences.

The “Now” at the beginning of the paragraph infers that the speaker was about to make some statements based on the groundwork laid earlier in his speech and the crux of the whole paragraph is balanced on one basic question. How will the struggle for justice be waged?

What he says from then on should be the fundamental guiding principle for non-violent struggle and it shows why the excerpted quote does no justice in correctness, completeness and context to what Martin Luther King, Jr. said on that day.

[Thank you :D ]

I think I have made my point, always seek the authoritative source of quotes you intent to share and I will also add if Bible verses are being shared the specific translation used should be shown.


[1] Anatomy of a Fake Quotation - Megan McArdle - National - The Atlantic

[2] Paraphrase - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[3] King Institute Home @ The Stanford University

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