“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.