A quote carved in stone on the new Martin Luther Jr memorial in Washington will be changed after the inscription was criticized for not accurately reflecting the civil rights leader’s words.
The inscription currently reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
The phrase is chiseled into one side of a massive block of granite that includes King’s likeness emerging from the stone. It became a point of controversy after the memorial opened in August.
A spokesman for the US Department of the Interior said on Friday that Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar decided to have the quote changed. The Washington Post first reported on Friday the decision to change the inscription.
The phrase is modified from a sermon known as the Drum Major Instinct, in which the 39-year-old King explained to his Atlanta congregation how he would like to be remembered at his funeral. He made the February 1968 speech just two months before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
In the speech, King’s words seem more modest than the paraphrased inscription: “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.”
Poet Maya Angelou previously said the truncated version made King sound like “an arrogant twit” because it was out of context.
Salazar gave the National Park Service, which the Interior Department oversees, a month to consult with the King Memorial Foundation, which led the effort to build the memorial, as well as family members and other interested parties. The committee is supposed to come up with a more accurate alternative to the quote.
Ed Jackson Jr, the executive architect of the US$120 million project, previously said King’s words were shortened for space reasons and that he stood by the paraphrased line.
He said in an e-mailed statement on Friday evening that the cost to make changes to the inscription will be assessed, but none of the existing stone work will be removed.
“A few very carefully selected words will be added to the existing phrase; that will further amplify his statement about his role in America during the mid-20th century as a leader, a social advocate, a messenger, a voice of the people ... for freedom, justice, hope and peace,” Jackson said.
Harry Johnson, president of the King Memorial Foundation, said it wasn’t yet clear what the alternatives might be. The group would look at all the ways a change could be made, he said.
Angelou was named among the memorial’s Council of Historians tasked with selecting the inscriptions for the memorial. However, she did not attend meetings about the inscriptions, Jackson said. Project planners also explained the shortened quote to the US Commission of Fine Arts, which ultimately approved the memorial’s design.
At least one other recent memorial has undergone changes after being opened to the public. After the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial opened in 1997, advocates for the disabled campaigned to have a statue added portraying the former president in his wheelchair. Originally, only one statue in the memorial alluded to the fact Roosevelt lost the use of his legs after contracting polio as an adult. That statue portrayed him seated with small wheels on the back of his chair.