Removal of MLK Memorial Misquote Begins

Repairs expected to be complete by 50th anniversary of the March on Washington

Work to remove a misquote on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial got underway Monday.

The sound of a grinder could be heard coming from underneath the tarp covering the paraphrased quote on the memorial's "Stone of Hope". Close observers could even see Sculptor Master Lei Yixin and his team in silhouette hard at work.

The team is carving horizontal grooves over the lettering of the quote to match existing marks in the sculpture.

Many people, including poet Maya Angelou, complained after the memorial opened in 2011 that the paraphrased quotation took King's words out of context and made him sound arrogant.

The paraphrased quote on the monument reads: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

The full quotation was taken from a 1968 sermon King delivered at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church about two months before King was assassinated. He was speaking about what he would want in his own eulogy. It reads:

"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."

Angelou said the paraphrase "makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit," the Washington Post reported in August 2011. "He was anything but that.... 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."

The quote was paraphrased so that it would fit on the north side of the statue.

In December, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he reached an agreement with King's family, the group that built the memorial and the National Park Service to remove the paraphrase.

Ed Jackson Jr., the memorial's executive architect, told the Associated Press that the lettering will be replaced with horizontal "movement lines" that are already part of the design to show the movement of the central Stone of Hope out of a Mountain of Despair behind it.

"So what they're going to do is make more of those striations where the words are, and then they're also going to make striations on the other side... so it all matches up," said Carol Johnson of the NPS.

The sculptor, Lei, had recommended removing the inscription that way to avoid compromising the monument's structural integrity, rather than cutting into the granite to replace it with a fuller quotation.

Cutting granite out of the sculpture and replacing it to make way for a longer quotation would have also looked like a "patch job" forever, Jackson said.

Removing the inscription retains the integrity of the artwork, he said.

That design was inspired by a line from King's "I Have a Dream" speech: "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope." That message is inscribed on the other side of the sculpture and will remain.

Visitors to the memorial were disappointed by the partially obstructed view Monday.

"I would've loved to see it without the scaffolding and all, see the grandness of it, but it serves the point anyway. I'm coming in from out-of-town, and I get to see it no matter what," one visitor said.

The work is expected to be finished before the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this Aug. 28, according to the NPS. The memorial will remain open during the work, though access to some areas will be affected.


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