The Washington Post is out today with a piece by Jamie Stiehm entitled, "Oval Office rug gets history wrong", wherein it is falsely claimed that a quotation printed on the new Oval Office rug is wrongly attributed to Martin Luther King.
There are only two problems with Ms. Stiehm's argument: the rug itself does not attribute the quote to anybody, and Martin Luther King is in fact the author of the quote.
Here's the crux of her article:
A mistake has been made in the Oval Office makeover that goes beyond the beige.
President Obama's new presidential rug seemed beyond reproach, with quotations from Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. woven along its curved edge.
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." According media reports, this quote keeping Obama company on his wheat-colored carpet is from King.
Except it's not a King quote. The words belong to a long-gone Bostonian champion of social progress . . . Theodore Parker.
No they do not, Ms. Stiehm. Here are Mr. Parker's words:
"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."
King used the phrase many times, but here's an example from his speech in Selma in 1965:
"I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again.
"How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
"How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow....
"How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
Here are the words that are printed on the Oval Office rug:
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
Who would you attribute that quote to?
If those exact words had been attributed to Mr. Theodore Parker, that would have been a mistake, because Mr. Parker never said them. King on the other hand did say them, on many, many occasions.
So, we have two levels of FAIL for Ms. Stiehm. She alleges that the quote is falsely attributed to Dr. King. She is wrong. Martin Luther King is the correct source for the words as they appear on the Oval Office rug. But even if she were correct that the quote was falsely attributed to King, her allegation that the "rug got it wrong" also fails, given that the rug itself does not attribute the quote to anyone.
The only source that she cites as attributing the quote to King are "media reports", which would presumably include her own newspaper.
If the Washington Post really wanted to educate the public about the original source of the idea behind the quote, they would do well to forgo this lame attempt at "gotcha" journalism, and instead provide the additional information that would serve to enlighten us about an interesting connection between a leader of the 19th Century abolitionist movement and the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hopefully, that was Ms. Stiehm's true intent.
UPDATE: Obligatory "thanks" for voting me to the Rec list!!!
UPDATE II: Ms. Stiehm responds (h/t joemcginissjr in the comments):
Joe, to your point, you cannot take the essence of a quotation and speak it in a speech, and call it yours! This is Theodore Parker's original language, concept, poetic prose. I am aware of everything you wrote to note, thanks, but found your tone left something to be desired. If you're the son of the writer, or if not - words belong to the writer/author/preacher who said them first. King surely revived and renewed Parker's longer lines - and I admire Obama tremendously, don't get me wrong. But I passionately believe the past can't get lost in translation - call it the history major in me. Hope this speaks to your concern. Best wishes, Jamie