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Martins and Luthers and Misquotes

By January 28, 2013 3 Comments


I snapped this photo from my seat at the Washington, D.C. restaurant where I had brunch with a friend last Sunday. I admired the chalk mural, and wasn’t surprised by the MLK Jr. and Obama visages—D.C. was abuzz with inauguration and MLK Jr. Day festivities, decorations, and souvenirs.

But something wasn’t right. Ah, I thought, it’s the quote. 

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would fall to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t say that. It’s attributed to Martin Luther. And there’s some debate about whether Luther himself ever actually said it.

After quickly confirming this (thanks, smartphone, and thanks, Wikipedia!) I mused with my friend about whether the artist knew or cared that MLK Jr. didn’t really say this. And about what difference, if any, it makes that the restaurant patrons will come away from their meal thinking that he did. And about how our 500-year-old Reformation rockstar Martin Luther is getting no credit. (Maybe I was sensitive to this, having just come from an Episcopalian worship service. I think the smell of incense is still clinging to me.)

Out of curiosity, I asked a waiter. No, he said, he didn’t realize that the quote was misattributed. And no, the artist wasn’t working at the restaurant today. Hm, I said, well, it’s just interesting to me. A little defensively, he replied, “Well, it’s not gonna get changed now, she spent a long time on it!”

Now, I won’t disclose the name of the name of the restaurant, lest I impact their Yelp reviews. Not that the foodies who come for brunch are all that concerned with historical accuracy regarding 16th and 20th century reformers. (Although I bet they’d be indignant if they discovered, say, that their ethically sourced specialty coffees were actually Folgers).

The thing is, this restaurant is located in the Columbia Heights area of D.C., less than a quarter mile from the intersection that was one of the flashpoints for the riots that erupted within hours of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968. The area was burned out, ravaged by the riots, and didn’t recover for decades. In the past 15 years, with the extension of the D.C. metro out that way, and the accompanying economic recovery, it has become one of the nation’s most rapidly gentrifying zipcodes. The white population there is booming, in the midst of what was a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood. 

All that to say, I tend to think there is significance in what we choose to remember or misremember when it comes to the people who have pushed for change, even given their lives for it. As the rector’s sermon that morning had pointed out, ours is a nation rife with historical amnesia, and we have a hard time maintaining enthusiasm for social change for more than about 20 years at a time. So I guess the quote is harmless to some degree, but I do wonder what harm ensues over time if we collectively neglect to let ourselves be confronted, really confronted, by the more pointed exposures of injustice and the summons to toil for justice that marked most of what MLK Jr. really did say.

At least it’s a quote that sounds like it could have been something MLK Jr. said. He planted every seed he could until the very end, when he reached the tomorrow when his world and work did come to an end, leaving a nation scattered with seeds that are still waiting to be watered and tended.

Meanwhile, in our nation’s capital, where every sound bite and slip of the tongue is subject to media scrutiny, I suppose time will tell which words we adhere to, whose inspirational and articulate ideas we really invest in. We choose what to remember. 


  • Steve MVW says:

    Here's my weird MLK day weird moment. Person talking about son at college, "Well of course, his college takes the day off. After all, as a Lutheran college it would especially want to honor a Lutheran like MLK." I guess his middle name caused the confusion? Doesn't it make you wonder about all history in general, just how mish-mashed it all is? MLK is recent enough that some of us can remember and still recognize the mistakes and incongruities, but after that…?

  • Mike Weber says:

    My weird MLK experience is the opposite of Steve's. My youngest children spent their first years in the Cleveland Public Schools. When they reached grades 3 & 5 we enrolled them in a Lutheran school. When their religion teacher told them they were going to learn about Martin Luther, they said, "We know all about him. We studied him all the time in public school."

  • Jessica Bratt says:

    Thanks for the additional anecdotes, Steve and Mike…

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