Maya Angelou: MLK Memorial Quote ‘Makes Him Seem Like an Egotist’

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Charles Dharapak / AP

An inscription is carved on the side of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington.

Poet and author Maya Angelou is irked by an inscription on the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial that she believes “minimizes the man.” (via Washington Post)

A quotation from one of King’s speeches was paraphrased in order to fit on the side of the newly unveiled memorial dedicated to his legacy. The inscription, which is carved on the north side of the statue, reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

The excerpt was taken from a sermon delivered by King at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1968, the same year he was assassinated. King, while referencing what his own eulogy might sound like, said to the congregation: “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.” (The full sermon can be read here.)

(VIDEO: Washington’s Grand Monument to Martin Luther King Jr.)

The quotation was chosen as a central inscription for the four-acre, $120 million memorial, which stands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. But due to a last-minute design change, the excerpt was paraphrased and shortened in order to fit on a different side of the statue.

Angelou said the paraphrased version of the quote misrepresents the civil rights leader and makes him “look like an arrogant twit.”

“He was anything but that,” Angelou, 83, told the Washington Post on Tuesday. “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.”

She also said the inscription “makes him seem like an egotist.”

Angelou was one of the consultants for the memorial’s construction, ABC reported. She was also King’s friend.

The memorial project’s executive architect, Ed Jackson, Jr., said the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which was overseeing the memorial design, was notified about the shortened inscription. “They didn’t have a problem with it,” he said, adding, “Now, did I ask Maya Angelou? No.”

Jon Onye Lockard, an adviser to the project, told the Post, “I think it’s rather small of folks to pick at things. This has been going on for 14 years, and all of them have had plenty of time to add their thoughts and ideas.”

This is not the first controversy surrounding the 30-foot-tall granite statue. Many have complained that an American or African American should have been chosen to sculpt the memorial, rather than Lei Yixin of China, and that the “stern” stance and demeanor of the statue also misrepresents Dr. King.

MORE: Photos: Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Is Unveiled in Washington

CORRECTION: An older version of this article attributed a quotation to Ed Jackson, Jr, when it should have been attributed to Jon Onye Lockard.

Kai Ma is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @Kai_Ma or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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