Workers have begun removing the controversial “drum major” inscription on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and the National Park Service said Tuesday the task should be finished for the 50th anniversary next month of King’s famous March on Washington.
Although much of the memorial is covered in shrouding and scaffolding, Bob Vogel, superintendent of National Mall and Memorial Parks, said it will be ready for the commemorations that begin in about three weeks.
“We think it will be done in time for the March on Washington” anniversary, Vogel said at the memorial Tuesday. “And I think it will look very good.”
Lei Yixin, the Chinese master sculptor who carved the image of King that bears the inscription, said the work, which began Monday, would take 20 days.
Commemorations of King’s famous 1963 march begin Aug. 24.
If all goes well, Lei, whose team can work weekdays and Saturdays, officials said, could be done by Aug. 20. The anniversary of the march is Aug. 28, and the memorial, on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin, is expected to be the focus of many events.
“We’re very appreciative of Master Lei working with us, and his willingness to come over from China,” Vogel said. “It’s never easy to work through all the paperwork process to get someone over here. There’ve been some delays because of that. We’re very pleased with him being here.”
The offending inscription, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” is one of two that were carved on the memorial’s three-story stone statue of King.
It appears on the north face of the statue, and was designed to go with an inscription on the south face, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” Those words will not be altered.
By Tuesday, only the word “peace” remained.
The inscription was a flawed paraphrase 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 at 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.”
The inscription aroused controversy when a Washington Post editorial assistant, Rachel Manteuffel, wrote an opinion piece in the paper pointing out the extent of the abridgment.
After Manteuffel’s piece appeared, poet and author Maya Angelou said the paraphrase made King sound like an “arrogant twit,” and members of King’s family expressed dismay.
The Interior Department had originally wanted the inscription to be replaced with the full quotation from King’s speech, but then decided to remove it altogether.
The issue remains controversial. Lei said Tuesday that he thought the removal was not necessary and that he preferred keeping the original inscription.
Ryant Price, 50, visiting the memorial with his wife, Lisa, from New Orleans, said:
“Instead of just erasing it, I wish they would put the regular quote, the real quote, the verbatim quote up. Because now you’re going to have a quote on one side, and no quote on the other side. You lose that uniformity.”
Lisa Price, 50, said: “It’s almost as if you’re erasing what Dr. King would have said, what he thought about. You can’t just leave it blank, because he really didn’t leave anything blank.”
Near an entrance to the memorial, Cynthia Ward of Northwest Washington held a large black-and-white sign that read: “DON’T ERASE if ya not gonna REPLACE.”
“I think we worked very hard to have a good public discourse on the quote,” Vogel, the parks superintendent, said. “And [we] worked successfully with the memorial foundation and the King family. . . and I feel that we have a very positive solution.”
Not only must the inscription be removed, but the blank space must be made to resemble the striations, or horizontal lines, that appear elsewhere on the memorial.
And 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. It 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 still 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.
The memorial was dedicated in 2011 and sits on the Tidal Basin, southeast of the National World War II Memorial.
The current work is expected to cost $700,000 to $900,000, paid for through a special fund created by the memorial foundation and turned over to the National Park Service for maintenance.