Martin Luther King Jr. quotation to be replaced on memorial

February 11, 2012

An abbreviated inscription on the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial will be stripped off and replaced with a quotation that better represents his sentiments, officials in charge of the memorial said Friday.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said in a joint statement that the change to the paraphrase from King’s “drum major” speech is viewed as a correction to restore the context and make the intent of King’s words clear.

“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.

But the change is unlikely to end the controversy over the words that some critics charged turned a humble homily into a narcissistic boast. Officials with the foundation that designed the memorial and raised $120 million to build it said the alteration would harm the memorial’s integrity and urged a more modest modification, possibly with the addition of a few words.

Dedicated in the fall, the memorial sits on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin, southeast of the National World War II Memorial.

The inscription comes from a powerful, difficult-to-distill sermon King delivered two months before he was assassinated in 1968. Speaking to the congregation of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, King critiqued the “drum major instinct,” shorthand for a showboat who leads the parade. Imagining his own eulogy, King made it clear 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 the other shallow things will not matter.”

When carved into granite on the north face of the memorial’s centerpiece, a 30-foot-tall statue of King emerging from a huge block of stone, the sentiment was edited from 46 words to 10, to fit the space available: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.

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

After several months of scornful critiques, Salazar last month ordered a correction. He gave the Park Service 30 days to consult the King family and report back with a plan.

The statement released by his office Friday cited Bernice King, the youngest daughter of the slain civil rights leader, expressing her family’s gratitude for the correction, and for involving the King family in the deliberations.

Editing words carved onto a slab of granite a yard thick is complex. It is unclear exactly how it could be done and what the cost might be.

Carol Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Park Service, said it could necessitate shaving five inches or so off and replacing it with another slab bearing the quotation.

The change was lauded by some King intimates.

“I am glad to see that the National Park Service was cooperative and responsive,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, even though he thought the controversy was over a “technicality” and “was not catastrophic.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was with King when he was killed, praised the change.

“I think that a quote that is to be eternal should be correct and in full context,” he said. “This memorial is not for a season, it is forever, and it deserves that adjustment.”

But Ed Jackson Jr., chief architect of the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation, said the change could destroy the experience that the foundation strove to create for visitors.

“I think any such action in that regard defaces the memorial and destroys the quality of the product that the foundation has worked so diligently to bring to the citizens of this country,” he said.

Jackson said he would prefer that the inscription remain as it is.

It was never intended to be a quotation, he said. “We felt we caught the essence of what he said he wanted to be remembered for,” Jackson said, adding, “We specifically used the active voice. We want to give the visitor the impression Dr. King is actually speaking to them.”

Jackson said the foundation would ask the Commission of Fine Arts, which provides aesthetic advice on monuments and memorials around Washington, to encourage the Park Service to instead modify the quotation with a lengthier paraphrase accomplished with the addition of a few words.

“Let’s put this within the realm of a public hearing and thrash it out,” he said.

Thomas Luebke, secretary to the commission, said he would review any proposals from the Park Service, which took over the memorial once the foundation had built it.

However, the Park Service
noted that the commission approved the full quotation in 2010. Therefore, the service said, no further review is required.

Jackson also said he was disappointed that he and others at the foundation did not get a chance to provide input.

“Obviously, they had a meeting, and they did not invite us,” he said. “That’s very sad. We were waiting for a call. That call never came.”

Johnson, the Park Service spokeswoman, said there were no meetings, although officials had conversations with individuals. Among them, she said, was Harry E. Johnson Sr., a Houston attorney who is president of the memorial foundation. Harry Johnson could not be reached for comment Friday.

But in a statement Saturday, he urged supporters to beseech Congress and the White House to come up with a “less intrusive” alteration, saying the proposed change would threaten the integrity of Stone of Hope, as the centerpiece of the memorial is called.

“It is the position of the Memorial Foundation’s architects and consultants that the direction recommended by the National Park Service will in fact threaten the design, structure and integrity of the Stone of Hope,” Johnson said.

Jarvis set a goal of having the work completed by the celebration of King’s birthday next January. The Park Service said it is exploring a range of options for funding the change, including private donations.

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this article.

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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