Ever since the memorial opened in August, critics have blasted the use of a quote carved on to the north face of the 30-foot-tall granite statue that reads, “I was a drum major for justice.”
The quote, pulled from a Feb. 4, 1968 sermon King gave at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist church, comes from a lengthy sermon about the evils of self-promotion.
“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King told the Atlanta congregation two months before his assassination. “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.”
Critics believe the short quote is out of context and should be corrected or removed. One of the critics, poet and author Maya Angelou, has said that the quote on the memorial makes King “look like an arrogant twit.”
The Washington Post editorial board agreed, writing last month in a lead editorial, “The sermon is complex and open to interpretation, but one thing is clear: Dr. King does not claim to be a drum major for anything.”
On Wednesday, Salazar, who oversees the Park Service, said the quote “is an area of concern to me.”
“I visited the memorial yesterday, I looked at the quote, I looked at all the other quotes, it’s a wonderful memorial, but there are some issues that we’ll resolve and we’ll work on them once we get past the [Oct. 16 dedication],” Salazar said at a breakfast hosted Wednesday by the Christian Science Monitor.
Organizers must also finish raising about $3 million needed to complete construction on the four-acre site, including restoration of a lawn behind the memorial’s visitor center and a nearby parking area, the secretary said. He expressed confidence that organizers would be able to do so.
By law, Congress requires backers of proposed national monuments or historic sites to raise private funds to construct the site. Once completed, the locations are turned over to the management of the National Park Service. The agency took control of the King Memorial last month.
Salazar and the Park Service may face stiff resistance from the memorial’s designers and architects, who last month defended their choice of quotation and said they had no plans to change it.
“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,” executive architect Ed Jackson Jr. told The Post last month. The memorial’s sculptor, Lei Yixin, and the inscription carver, Nick Benson, felt that the inscription should be “very brief and succinct” and that it was not designed to be a direct quote, Jackson said.
Regardless of the concerns, “We’ll work through those issues,” Salazar said. “I don’t want what we are doing on the 16th to be clouded by the fact that there are still some things that are going to have to get done.”
Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost
The MLK Jr. memorial’s monumental misquote (Washington Post editorial)
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