Work begins to remove ‘drum major’ inscription on Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Workers have begun removing the controversial “drum major” inscription on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, in preparation for the 50th anniversary next month of King’s famous march on Washington.

Crews directed by Chinese master sculptor Lei Yixin removed the phrase “I was a drum major for justice” on Monday afternoon and prepared to cut out the words “peace and righteousness” on Tuesday.

The inscription, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” which appears on the memorial’s three-story statue of King, aroused controversy when critics voiced complaints that it made King sound arrogant.

It was a distilled version of a quote from a sermon King delivered two months before he was assassinated in 1968: “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King said, speaking to the congregation of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. “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.”

Lei, who carved the statue of King, said Tuesday that he thought the removal was not necessary, and that he preferred the original inscription.

Exploring the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial

The fix “is difficult but it’s still in his skill range,” Lei’s son, Ke Shi, said, translating for his father.

Lei added that he thought the memorial was beautiful and fits well with the landscape of Washington. “Washington, D.C., has a pretty good environment,” Shi quoted his father as saying. “The sculpture’s not dirty at all.”

“He’s very satisfied,” Shi said.

Lei said the work would take about 20 days. It is expected to cost between $700,000 and $900,000, paid for through a special fund created by the memorial foundation and turned over to the National Park Service for maintenance.

The inscription has to be removed and the blank space made to resemble the striations, or “horizontal movement lines,” that appear elsewhere on the memorial, which was dedicated in 2011 and sits on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin, southeast of the National World War II Memorial.

Because the inscription’s removal will cut deeper into the stone than the existing horizontal lines, the other striations will have to be gouged deeper to match.

The work is being done on scaffolding and behind fabric shrouds to prevent debris from blowing around.

The work should be completed just before Aug. 28, the 50th anniversary of King’s March on Washington in 1963, when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Extensive commemorations are planned to mark that anniversary.

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