The U.S. Department of the Interior has decided to eliminate the controversial paraphrased quotation engraved on the north side of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. In a statement released on Nov. 11, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reversed the department’s previous position, agreeing to replace the inscription with the complete quote from King’s 1968 sermon.
King spoke the words in question in Atlanta two months before his assassination. Addressing the congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church, he delivered a spin-off of Methodist preacher J. Wallace Hamilton’s 1952 homily “Drum-Major Instincts,” which criticizes the “desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade.”
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King said in his sermon. “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 some believe the truncated version of the speech that appeared on the three-story sculpture — I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness — conveyed an entirely opposite message, the Washington Post reported. Post columnist Rachel Manteuffel argued that the abridged quote misrepresents the civil rights leader. Poet Maya Angelou echoed the journalist’s sentiment, saying the line makes King seem like an “arrogant twit.” The debate prompted the Interior Department to announce in February that the statue would be altered to include the full quotation.
“With a monument so powerful and timeless, it is especially important that all aspects of its words, design and meaning stay true to Dr. King’s life and legacy,” Salazar said in February.
Following a review of the replacement plan, however, it became clear that the sculpture’s design, which mimics that of a mountain, would be compromised, the Post reported.
“It would have looked like a patch job for the life of the memorial,” said Ed Jackson Jr., head architect of the monument. Instead, after consulting with the statue’s original sculptor, Lei Yixin, the group decided that the “safest way to ensure the structural integrity” of the statue would be to carve striations — or horizontal movement lines — over the quote to match existing etchings.
“The memorial stands as a testament to Dr. King’s struggle for civil rights, and a dream of dignity, respect and justice for all,” Salazar said in the release. “I am proud that all parties have come together on a resolution that will help ensure the structural integrity of this timeless and powerful monument to Dr. King’s life and legacy.”
The memorial will remain open during the alterations, and construction will commence in February 2013. Salazar said he expects the changes, which will cost between $700,000 and $900,000, to be finished in the spring.
Members of King’s family have expressed gratitude toward the Interior Department for its treatment of the situation. The activist’s youngest daughter, Bernice A. King, thanked the Salazar and the National Park Service for meticulously considering the monument’s message. King’s sister, Dr. Christine King Farris, agreed.
“While our family would have of course preferred to have the entire ‘Drum Major’ quote used,” Farris said in the department release, “we fully endorse and support the Secretary’s proposal.”