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A Paraphrased Quote Stirs Criticism Of MLK Memorial

Originally published on August 31, 2011 6:08 pm

The new memorial for Martin Luther King on the National Mall in Washington includes a lot of quotes from the civil rights leader. But on the north side of the memorial, there is a paraphrased quote that's causing a stir.

"I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness," the inscription reads.

The poet and author and one of the memorial's consultants, Maya Angelou, told The Washington Post, yesterday, the quote makes King seem arrogant. Actually, she put it in harsher terms.

"The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit," she said.

"He was anything but that," she added. "He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply. He had no arrogance at all. He had a humility that comes from deep inside. The 'if' clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely."

That inscription on the monument comes from a rousing sermon, Dr. King delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1968. Stanford University keeps a full version of the sermon at its site. But the key part comes at the end of the speech, when Dr. King imagines his own funeral and hopes that those who deliver the eulogy don't "talk too long," downplay his achievements and emphasize that he tried to do what was right. He said:

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. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. (Amen) And that's all I want to say.

Today, All Things Considered's Melissa Block spoke to memorial's executive architect, Ed Jackson Jr., who explained the quote was paraphrased because of design constraints. At first, he said, the quote was going to be placed on the south face of the monument, but instead the designers decided that they wanted visitors to see the quotation ("Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope...") that explained the whole concept first. So they decided to move the quotation to the north side, where the sculptor had already done some work adding striations that left little room for a lengthy engraving.

That's the technical explanation. But Jackson also said he disagreed with Angelou. He said the quote did not make King sound arrogant and said the memorial includes 14 other quotations and that the full experience cannot be determined by one small part of it.

"What we hope is that what we have created ... [has] more than one definition," said Jackson. "What we were hoping is that this memorial furthers the dialogue about what Dr. King was about."

That people are digging through old sermons and talking about Dr. King's words accomplishes that, he said.

Jackson also said he hears people say "Dr. King would not have" a lot.

"Dr. King," he said, "would not have wanted to have a monument to himself at all. But we're not building this for Dr. King. We're building this in honor of his legacy such that his legacy doesn't die with him.

"And so we're building this to inspire others to follow in his footsteps and in doing so you have to do it in such a compelling way that people are moved emotionally."

That paraphrased inscription gets the message across succinctly, said Jackson.

Much more of Melissa's conversation with Ed Jackson Jr. is on tonight's edition of All Things Considered. Tune in to your local NPR member station. We'll post the as-aired version of the interview here later today.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: The new memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. on the Mall here in Washington, D.C., features many quotations from Dr. King carved into granite. Well, one of those inscriptions in particular has been called into question. It reads on the memorial: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. But that's not a direct quote. It's a paraphrase, a condensed version of what Dr. King said in his "Drum Major Instinct" sermon two months before he was killed.

Let's listen to Dr. King preaching at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, February 4, 1968. He's talking about how he would want to be remembered at his funeral.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

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.

BLOCK: I'm joined by the Martin Luther King Memorial's executive architect Ed Jackson Jr. to talk about the context of that quote and why it was shortened.

Dr. Jackson, welcome to the program. Thanks for coming in.

DR. ED JACKSON JR ARCHITECT, MARTIN LUTHER KING JR MEMORIAL: It is my pleasure to be here.

BLOCK: Now, one of the consultants on the memorial project, this is the writer Maya Angelou, is quite upset about this. She told The Washington Post the quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. And she says by leaving out the if clause that starts that thought you change the meaning completely.

First, why was the quote collapsed on the memorial?

MEMORIAL: The quote was changed to a paraphrase of the original statement based on design constraints. I am a fan of Maya Angelou. I have several of her books. I buy her Hallmark cards. And I think that the statement that she made was very colorful and it attracted the attention of the reader. And that's what a writer is supposed to do.

But I'm in the business of architecture. And when we are faced to make design decisions we have to do so with respect to a number of factors - size, shape, distance, perspective, height, depth, width, size of letters, font style. The message had to be communicated succinctly and then allow the visitor to come around and face Dr. King and have that once-in-a-lifetime experience.

BLOCK: It's interesting, if you read or listen to that entire sermon, Dr. King was preaching about humility. He says that the drum major instinct that he's talking about is the desire to be out front, to lead, to be praised, to get recognized. And it's natural. He says it's the vitamin A to our ego. But he's warning, too. He's saying it's also pernicious. It needs to be harnessed and reined it.

Some people are saying that by shrinking his words down to just I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness, you're conveying the opposite meaning, that that humility is gone.

MEMORIAL: We have a total of 14 quotes on the inscription wall that champion what Dr. King had to say about justice, democracy, hope and love. And in the words that we have captured here he is not arrogant. And so if you've had the opportunity to experience the 14 quotes, what Dr. King had to say, and you come around and just before you see Dr. King's face looming large over the Potomac, over the Tidal Basin, the very truncated statement I was a drum major for peace, justice and righteousness seems to fit very well.

BLOCK: Is there any discussion to changing the inscription or is literally set in stone and it will stay that way?

MEMORIAL: It's set in stone. Dr. King probably would not have wanted to have a monument to himself at all. But we're not building this for Dr. King. We're building this in honor of his legacy such that his legacy doesn't die with him. And so we're building this to inspire others to follow in his footsteps. And in doing so, you have to do it in such a compelling way that people are emotionally moved by what they experience on this memorial setting that we have created. That's the goal and the objective.

BLOCK: Dr. Jackson, thanks very much.

MEMORIAL: My pleasure, ma'am.

BLOCK: That's Ed Jackson Jr. He is the executive architect of the new Martin Luther King Memorial here in Washington. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.