WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama evoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s own words about public service Monday as Obama and his family celebrated the life of the late civil rights leader with a volunteer project.
The president, along with wife Michelle Obama and daughter Malia, joined other volunteers at Browne Education Center in Washington.
During brief remarks, the president said there was no better way to honor King than to do something on behalf of others. He also acknowledged the controversy surrounding a quote on the new MLK memorial in Washington, which is being changed amid criticism that it did not accurately reflect King’s words.
“What he really said was all of us can be a drum major for service, all of us can be a drum major for justice,” Obama said. “There is nobody who can’t serve, nobody who can’t help somebody else.”
The inscription on the King memorial, located on the National Mall, currently reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” The phrase is modified from a sermon known as the “Drum Major Instinct,” which King delivered just two months before he was assassinated in 1968.
In the speech, King’s words seem more modest than the paraphrased inscription: “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.”
After meeting with volunteers, the Obamas headed to the school library to help build bookshelves and a reading corner for students. The president and first lady were then put to work painting two King quotes on the library walls.
The president stood on a chair and carefully used blue paint to write the phrase “The time is always right to do what is right.” Mrs. Obama painted the words “I have a dream.”
In the evening, Obama and his wife attended a “Let Freedom Ring” tribute to King’s legacy held by Georgetown University and the Kennedy Center.
The Kennedy Center program included selections from musician Bobby McFerrin and the Let Freedom Ring Celebration Choir featuring Georgetown University students and local area church members.
The university presented an award in honor of King to Clarence B. Jones, a former speech writer for the civil rights leader.
Music Director Rev. Nolan Williams Jr. told the story of the Freedom Riders who were often injured and jailed as they worked to integrate public buses in the South. He said their message was still true today, which he jokingly offered to Obama as a new campaign slogan: “You can lock us up, you can shut down government, but buses are still coming.”