Words Etched in Stone Are Not Easily Erased

"King on blue" by afagen via Flickr.com. (cc) Some rights reserved.

"King on blue" by afagen via Flickr.com. (cc) Some rights reserved.

"The problem with quotes on the Internet is that it is difficult to determine whether or not they are genuine." — Abraham Lincoln 

I was working on a big writing project recently and decided to pick up a quote attributed to the company's founder decades ago. 

It turned out that the beloved business leader never said those words—not exactly, at least. But over the years, the quote had become recycled so many times, that the sheer volume of mentions on Google "validated" its accuracy. 

Fortunately, I was able to fix the problem with a few keystrokes. But not every misquote can be so easily repaired—especially when they are etched in stone. 

Martin Luther King Jr. never said, "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness," as the inscription (see photo above) on his memorial in Washington, D.C., implies. Instead his words, spoken not long before he was assassinated, were far more nuanced:

"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. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind." 

Responding to mounting criticism that the 10-word paraphrase made King sound arrogant and self-righteous, federal officials have decided to remove the inscription—at a cost of $700,000 to $900,000 that will be raised by the memorial's foundation. 

The error, likely innocent, reinforces a point that I've been preaching for years: Words may be cheap, but erasing the wrong ones can be expensive.