Maya Angelou says King memorial inscription makes him look ‘arrogant’


U.S. Park Ranger Joseph Mohr stands in the shade of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on August 30, 2011. Critics lament the paraphrasing of The Rev. Martin Luther King's ‘Drum Major’ quote on the memorial, saying it makes him sound arrogant. (Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON POST)

On Feb. 4, 1968, two months before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a haunting sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church about a eulogy that might be given in the event of his death.

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King told the congregation. “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.”

The sermon was so powerful that the designers of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington selected those lines to be inscribed on the memorial’s towering statue of the civil rights leader.

But because of a design change during the statue’s creation, the exact quotes had to be paraphrased, and now one of the memorial’s best-known consultants, poet and author Maya Angelou, says the shortened inscription is misleading and ought to be changed.

Carved on the north face of the 30-foot-tall granite statue, the inscription reads: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.

“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” Angelou, 83, said Tuesday. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.

“He had no arrogance at all,” she said. “He had a humility that comes from deep inside. The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”

The paraphrase “minimizes the man,” she said. “It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was. . . . It makes him seem an egotist.”

The drum major reference “wasn’t all that he was,” she said. “He would never have said that of himself. He said ‘you’ might say it.”  

She said the quote should be changed to put it in context.

Told the quote had to be paraphrased to fit the available space, she replied: “Too bad.”

The inscription is one of two on the statue, which depicts King with his arms folded standing as if emerging from a huge block of stone. The memorial is on the northwestern shore of the Tidal Basin, just southwest of the National World War II Memorial.

The inscription on the statue’s south face says: Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

The creators of the memorial had originally intended to use most of the direct “drum major” quote, with “Martin Luther King Jr.” appearing at the end.

The memorial’s executive architect, Ed Jackson Jr., said the quote was originally planned for the statue’s south face, the one viewers first see as they approach the statue.

But he said planners changed their minds and decided to move the drum major inscription to the north face.

They preferred the statue’s other inscription — Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope — to be seen first, on the south face, because it is the main theme of the memorial’s design.

But when they informed the statue’s sculptor, Lei Yixin, he told them that he had already prepared the north face for the shorter “despair” inscription and that the whole “drum major” quote would not fit, Jackson said.

“We said, ‘. . . We’ve only got this much space [on the north face], what are we going to put up there?’ ” Jackson said Tuesday.

“We sincerely felt passionate that the man’s own eulogy should be expressed on the stone,” he said. “We said the least we could do was define who he was based on his perception of himself: ‘I was a drum major for this, this and this.’ ”

“As you move through the process, things happen and you have to make design changes on the spot,” he said.

Jackson said the project outlined the situation and the solution to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which was overseeing the memorial design. “They didn’t have a problem with it.”

“Now, did I ask Maya Angelou?” he said. “No.”

Although Angelou is listed among the memorial’s Council of Historians picked to select inscriptions for the memorial, she did not attend inscription meetings, Jackson said.

He said he did tell two other top memorial advisers about the situation, Jon Onye Lockard and James Chaffers, of the University of Michigan.

“I’m the guy that’s making the decisions,” Jackson said. “I informed them of what I was doing. I didn’t ask them for permission, or whether or not they agreed. But they liked the idea.

“The buck has to stop somewhere,” he said. “Otherwise we go round and round and round.”

Lockard said Tuesday that he was fine with the shortened inscription. “If there’s any comment about anything, it’s late,” he said.

“I’m reading a lot of articles now by a lot of people on both sides of the fence, now that the monument is up,” he said. “Everything from [facial] expression to, now, statements.”

“I think it’s rather small of folks to pick at things,” he said. “This has been going on for 14 years, and all of them have had plenty of time to add their thoughts and ideas.”

IFor more coverage of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, visit washingtonpost.com/mlk.

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated.
Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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