Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ordered a correction to a badly mangled quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. inscribed in granite on the Tidal Basin memorial to the slain civil rights leader.
Salazar said Friday that he has told the National Park Service to consult with the memorial foundation and the King family and to report back to him within 30 days with a plan to fix the carved excerpt that turned a modest and mellifluous phrase into a prideful boast.
“This is important because Dr. King and his presence on the Mall is a forever presence for the United States of America, and we have to make sure that we get it right,” Salazar told The Washington Post’s Rachel Manteuffel, whose opinion piece last summer first drew attention to the inartful truncation and sparked demands that it should be changed.
Edward Jackson Jr., the memorial’s lead architect, said the foundation responsible for building it has already come up with a proposal for alternative wording that expands the excerpt. But he said it’s impossible to carve the quotation in its entirety in the yard-thick granite without destroying the entire monument.
Salazar’s direction to the National Park Service comes just days before the nation commemorates King on what would have been his 83rd birthday. Salazar said he asked for a plan by this time next month because “things only happen when you put a deadline on it.”
The paraphrase on the north face of the 30-foot-tall granite statue comes from a powerful and poignant 1968 sermon King delivered two months before his assassination. King spoke of the “drum major instinct” as the epitome of egotism, a self-centered view of the world that he denounced. Imagining his eulogy, King used the conditional tense: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. 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.”
But after the architect and the sculptor thought the stone would look better with fewer words, a shortened version was put on, composed of just 10 words with a heavy staccato beat. It was no longer a conditional statement; it was a flat assertion: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
Salazar said he thought the excerpt was not true to King’s character.
“I do not think it’s an accurate portrayal of what Dr. King was,” Salazar said.
From the moment it became public, the inscription has been a subject of derision, anger and mirth.
Poet and author Maya Angelou, who had worked with King, told The Post that it made him sound like “an arrogant twit.” Martin Luther King III told CNN, “That was not what Dad said.” And Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert called it “to the point. Not Dr. King’s point, but still.”
The memorial was built with private funds, as required by law, raised by the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation. It was turned over to the Park Service only after completion.
With criticism fresh in their ears, the memorial foundation began exploring alternatives from the moment the controversy arose, Jackson said.
It is not an easy fix. The words are chiseled into granite that is three feet thick, so it can’t be simply stripped away and replaced as a veneer could.
“You can’t replace the existing granite without destroying the centerpiece,” Jackson said.
It is possible to add more words from the King quotation, but the entire quote would not fit, he said, explaining why it must remain a partial quote.
“It will still be a paraphrase,” he said. “It won’t have as many lines as the original quote. But it will come closer to the actual quote.”
Jackson declined to specify the alternative wording being proposed, saying he wants to leave the public announcement to the interior secretary.
It is premature to estimate how much it would cost to replace the inscription, an official familiar with the situation said Friday, noting that no such estimates could be conducted until Salazar authorizes a change. Jackson said he did not know whether the cost would have to be shouldered by the Park Service, which manages the memorial, or the foundation that built it.
Even the addition of a few words is likely to be a pricey undertaking.
“It’s not an overnight fix,” said Nick Benson, a master stone carver from Rhode Island who designed the font and carved all the inscriptions.
For months, there have been quiet hints that a change was in the offing.
Park Service guides have been telling tourists the inscription was wrong and would have to be changed one day.
At an October breakfast with reporters, Salazar said he had visited the site and that the controversy was “an area of concern to me.”
“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,” he said then.
Researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this article.