Image: Obama
Jonathan Ernst  /  REUTERS
President Barack Obama paints a quotation attributed to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. while he and daughter Malia, center work during a day of service in King's honor at the Browne Education Campus school in Washington on Monday.
updated 1/16/2012 12:36:55 PM ET 2012-01-16T17:36:55

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."

Honoring Martin Luther King Jr. at his memorial in DC

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."

This was the third year in a row the Obamas have participated in a service project on the King holiday.

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Video: Controversial MLK memorial quote to be changed

  1. Closed captioning of: Controversial MLK memorial quote to be changed

    >>> tomorrow america honors the memory of dr. martin luther king , jr. this year the new memorial in washington will be open to visit and remember his legacy. jeff johnson joins us with a good sunday morning to you, jeff. as we all prepare to honor dr. martin luther king , jr., a quote on his memorial in d.c. is going to be changed following complaints the statement was inscribed out of its original context. i was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. but advocates complain the quote makes him appear self-righteous or arrogant. what he really said was this quote. 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. what are your thoughts on this change?

    >> it's accurate. this was from his drum major instinct speech which was really an opportunity for king to talk about the kind of leadership that not just black america needed but america needed. he was very keen on talking about he fed -- he worked for those that did not have. he even talked about the fact that his degrees didn't matter. all the awards didn't matter. the fact that the nobel peace prize that he received didn't matter. but how he served is how he wanted to be remembered. it's historically accurate.

    >> okay. how about this new study out there. this is the new ninth annual state of the dream report in which it shows this year, minorities make up almost of half of u.s. residents. by 2030 , a majority of residents will be minorities. looking into 2042 , 30 years from now, minorities will be a majority of the american population. jeff, this study raises serious concerns predicting that economic problems for minorities will get worse if the size of government is cut. what are your thoughts on that?

    >> well, i mean, we have to understand there are a large number of people of color that work for the government. if you're looking at that alone, so many of the government jobs that people are losing have been lost by people of color . you're also talking about how, through this debate between conservatives and progress sifs, how is government going to effectively move forward in providing to those that are part of the 99%, the services that they need to be able to kind of bridge the wealth gap to be able to have opportunity, to be able to have the dream of home ownership, to be able to go on to college. even if you look at the unemployment rates, the unemployment rates have been double digit for african-americans. not in the last four years, but since 1972 . and so i think these are the questions we continue to talk about over and over again. but solutions will be essential if the numbers about population are going to be true.

    >> what about the racial wealth gap , do you think that could grow wider as the minority population grows?

    >> it's going to grow wider if we don't see increased opportunity. i don't think it's a question. i think it's a certainty unless we see certain things clearly change.

    >> how do you think dr. king would interpret these differences in america now as to when he was alive?

    >> well, i think the better question is how would we interpret them? i think dr. king wag clear about being aggressive in addressing inee qualities of all people. at the time of his death, he was dealing with the poor people 's campaign, which is a campaign we could use right now. if you talk to those that are occupiers, regardless of where they are, they in many cases are the legacy of what king was fighting for, pushing for those that don't vi. i think he would be frustrated with the continued inequality, not just for african-americans but for a vast population of people in america .

    >> okay. grit owe.com, jeff johnson good to see you.

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