The noted poet and author Maya Angelou has said the inscription — “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness” — is a misleading, inaccurate truncation that makes King sound like an “arrogant twit .”
King’s sermon was a critique of the individual’s instinct to be on top, to lead the parade, to be the “drum major.” He also spoke of a eulogy that might be given upon his death.
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” he 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.”
The Washington Post, in a lead editorial Friday, described the memorial’s paraphrase as a “ham-handed” effort that turns a “conditional statement into a boast” and urged that the inscription be changed.
The $120 million memorial is on a four-acre site on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin, just southwest of the World War II Memorial. The inscription appears on the north face of the 30-foot-tall granite statue of King that is the memorial’s centerpiece.
The memorial opened to the public Aug. 22. It’s scheduled dedication on Aug. 28 was postponed by Hurricane Irene. A new date had not been set as of Friday.
The initial complaints about the inscription emerged after a Post opinion piece by the newspaper’s Rachel Manteuffel last week expressed dismay about the paraphrase. She called for it to be altered. “Let’s get the chisels back out,” she said.
Jackson reiterated Friday that he believes the paraphrase is proper and fitting: “We felt it was quite appropriate for (King) to define himself . . . ‘I was a drum major for peace, justice, and righteousness.’ You can’t get any more succinct than that.”
He said the memorial’s sculptor, Lei Yixin, and the inscription carver, Nick Benson, felt that the inscription should be “very brief and succinct.” He said it was not designed to be a direct quote.
Jackson said the full quote would not fit in the allotted space on the statue’s north face and rejected the idea of a smaller adjustment. Manteuffel, for example, found the absence of the word “if” especially troubling.
Jackson said: “The word ‘if’ suggests that . . . he’s not sure of who he was. . . . We have the historical perspective. We can say emphatically he was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
Asked if the inscription could be altered in any way, the architect said, “No.”
“The space is not there” and the overall design and layout of the inscription on the statue would not permit it, he said. “We don’t have an enormous palette here.”
He said he has had no official calls for the inscription to be changed.