King Memorial Inscription To Be Changed

Dec 13, 2012
Originally published on December 13, 2012 9:03 am
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The government has decided to remove some words from the side of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall. It's a paraphrased quote from King, and family of the civil rights leader complained that abbreviating the phrase from a 1968 King speech made him sound arrogant. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Here's the original phrase from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1968 in which he talked about the drum major instinct, a desire to lead the parade, he said, but a good instinct if you use it right. He talked about how he'd like to be remembered.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: Yes, 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.

KEYES: Instead, planners decided to edit the statement on the memorial to read: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. But King's family and others, including poet Maya Angelou, objected, with Angelou saying it made King look like, quote, "an arrogant twit." Back in February, the government said it would fix the truncated version, but the Memorial Foundation's executive architect, Ed Jackson, defended the shortened version, telling NPR...

ED JACKSON: I believe that we caught the essence of his statement.

KEYES: After months of consultation, the government now says it will remove the inch-deep letters on the monument on the National Mall. King's sister, Christine King Farris, is pleased.

CHRISTINE KING FARRIS: I am in agreement that if it's not going to be the true quote, then it's better not to have it.

KEYES: National Mall and Memorial Park spokeswoman Carol Johnson says the original sculptor is being flown in to remove the quote by carving scratches into it.

CAROL JOHNSON: He's going to carve into the letters and make striations over those letters.

KEYES: The striations symbolize the lines that would have been left if the statue of King, called the Stone of Hope, had been torn from the carved Mountains of Despair that stand behind King's image.

JOHNSON: So there are existing striations and they are going to match those striations. He's also going to go over to the other side of the sculpture and put more striations in there so it matches up.

KEYES: All parties, including the Department of the Interior and the Memorial Foundation, say they're happy with the solution. At the King Memorial yesterday, most visitors told NPR they'd rather see the structure left alone. People like Keisha Holmes said the controversy was no big deal.

KEISHA HOLMES: That's who he was. He was a drum major for justice.

KEYES: And she appreciates the legacy he left behind.

HOLMES: Changing it, I don't think it would make a difference.

KEYES: Thomas Cain, a fellow minister, says planners ought to just change the pronoun they used.

THOMAS CAIN: All they have to do is say he was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.

KEYES: Caine says that would reflect what King was about rather than making him sound arrogant. The removal process is expected to cost between seven and nine hundred thousand dollars, and work is expected to begin in February or March. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.