I was in Atlanta when I first learned of a controversy over an inscription marking the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington. The quote on one side of the granite “Stone of Hope” reads, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, poet Maya Angelou argued that these were not King’s exact words and that, out of context, they made a humble preacher look like “an arrogant twit.”
Angelou expressed no concern with 14 other quotations from King that appear on a 450-foot-long memorial behind his statue.
By coincidence, this news found me as I began research for a book on the power of short writing. I’ve learned that we often use the shortest texts to express the most important messages, especially to honor and enshrine. Twitter did not invent short writing. From tattoos to gravestones to the base of monuments, we choose words with special care because we want them to last forever. In a short text, every word counts.
But with concision can come the loss of context.