Controversial King memorial inscription to be removed, not replaced


Critics complain that a paraphrased quotation from the famous “drum speech” on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial takes King’s words out of context making him sound arrogant. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
December 11, 2012

Federal officials have decided to resolve a controversy over a 10-word inscription on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial by removing it altogether.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the plan Tuesday to try to end the uproar, which grew out of an inscription that critics said made King sound arrogant.

The dispute pitted those who said that the carving grossly misrepresented King’s thought against the memorial’s designers and advisers, who said it was accurate and artistic.

The Interior Department, which in February announced that the inscription would be replaced, said it should be removed to protect the “structural integrity” of the three-story statue of King where it appears.

“I am proud that all parties have come together on a resolution,” Salazar said, according to an Interior Department statement. “The memorial stands as a testament to Dr. King’s struggle for civil rights, and a dream of dignity, respect and justice for all.”

Explore the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

The work is expected to cost between $700,000 and $900,000 and will be paid for by a special fund created by the memorial foundation and turned over to the National Park Service for maintenance.

The inscription in question comes from a sermon King delivered two months before he was assassinated, in 1968.

Speaking to the congregation of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, King critiqued what he called the egotistical “drum major instinct,” shorthand for a showboat who leads the parade.

Imagining his own eulogy, King said he wanted to be remembered for a higher purpose.

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King said. “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.”

But that was distilled to the inscription on the north face of the memorial’s statue: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. It was designed to match an equally brief inscription on the south face: Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

Anger and dismay over the truncated version grew after Rachel Manteuffel wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post drawing attention to the abridgement. Poet and author Maya Angelou said it made King sound like an “arrogant twit.”

Dedicated last year, and carved by Chinese master sculptor Lei Yixin, the memorial sits on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin, southeast of the National World War II Memorial.

The plan is to cut out the inscription to make it look like one of the horizontal “striations” already in the memorial.

The striations, or “horizontal movement lines,” are designed to make the statue look like it has been pulled from the granite mountain that forms its background.

But Ed Jackson Jr., the executive architect on the project, said the inscription removal will cut deeper into the stone than the existing striations and that they will probably have to be gouged deeper to match.

“The movement lines all over will have to be deepened,” he said. “So that it’s not going to look like an error or a correction, all of the movement lines will have to be deepened on both sides of the statue” and on the background mountain. “That is the plan.”

The plan will be submitted to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission for review.

In February, it was announced that the paraphrase would be removed and replaced with the entire quotation. “With a monument so powerful and timeless, it is especially important that all aspects of its words, design and meaning stay true to Dr. King’s life and legacy,” Salazar said at the time.

But Jackson said Tuesday: “It would have looked like a patch job for the life of the memorial.”

“What we’re doing here is a viable solution to the problem,” he said. “It’s a ‘yes, yes,’ for all parties. I’m pleased with it. Master Lei is pleased with it. The foundation is pleased with it, and the National Park Service is pleased.”

According to the Interior Department’s statement, Bernice A. King, King’s youngest daughter and chief executive of the King Center in Atlanta, said, “We are grateful that Secretary Salazar’s office and the National Park Service has taken such care to maintain the spirit and appearance of such an important monument to our country’s history and my father’s memory.”

The Interior Department said the memorial will remain open during the work, although it will be partially obscured by scaffolding. Repairs will not start until after the presidential inauguration, which falls on Jan. 21, the federal holiday marking King’s birthday.

The work is set to begin in February or March and be completed in 2013.

“The King Memorial has a special meaning to so many visitors to the National Mall,” Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said in the statement. “We want to make sure that the many thousands of people expected to visit on Dr. King’s birthday are able to see and experience this powerful tribute to Dr. King.”

Harry Johnson, president and chief executive of the memorial foundation, said: “We have come up with a design solution that will not harm the integrity of this work of art. We are pleased with the recommendation and look forward to its completion.”

Christine King Farris, King’s sister, said, “While our family would have of course preferred to have the entire ‘Drum Major’ quote used, we fully endorse and support the Secretary’s proposal.”

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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