Project To Fix Quote On MLK Memorial Hits Snags

The removal of a controversial inscription from the national Martin Luther King Jr. memorial may not be finished in time for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington later this month. The project is being held up by a dispute over the finishing process.

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In the nation's capitol, a project to remove a disputed quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. memorial has stalled. The work may not be finished in time for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington later this month. NPR's Allison Keyes tells us the issue is a finishing process that wasn't in the government's contract.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Carrie McCrory(ph) of Hartford, Connecticut walked up to the memorial with her family and looked rather surprised to find the 30-foot statue of the iconic civil rights leader shrouded in scaffolding.

CARRIE MCCRORY: I was a little disappointed.

KEYES: McCrory says the first time she came to the memorial it was a heartwarming experience and she could touch it.

MCCRORY: It's good that, you know, we're still able to see the statue, but at the same time, it was just kind of disappointing to see that, you know, it's fenced off and we're not able to have that intimate connection.

CAROL JOHNSON: We're not happy about having to do this.

KEYES: Carol Johnson is spokeswoman for the National Park Service. The agency isn't pleased about the controversy surrounding King's drum major quote. During the design process, the memorial's executive architect, Ed Jackson, Jr. and other planners, decided to shorten a quote from a 1968 King sermon so it would fit on the statue's north side.

It read - I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. The full quote is...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER: 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 other shallow things will not matter.

KEYES: King's family and others felt the shorter version made the civil rights leader look arrogant, so Johnson says the sculptor that created the memorial came from China this month to remove it.

JOHNSON: To the untrained eye, it is not going to look unfinished.

KEYES: The quote has been chiseled away, but now, master Lei Yixin wants to use steel pellets to blast the space to give it a uniform appearance and Johnson says the contractors insurance doesn't cover that.

JOHNSON: We were unaware that the artist wanted to do this, so it was not in the contract and we have to work within our contracting regulations.

KEYES: Last week, workers tried to use walnut shells for the blasting process and Johnson says...

JOHNSON: The oil in the walnut shells left a small yellowish stain on it, but Master Lei has assured us that that is easily removed.

KEYES: As things stand now, the park service is hoping it can do the work under Master Lei's supervision before his scheduled return to China, August 20th. If that fails, Johnson says the agency will bring him back later to finish the work.

LAMONT LITTLEJOHN: I do believe that if you're gonna quote history, quote it right.

KEYES: Back at the memorial, Lamont Littlejohn(ph) of Shelby, North Carolina, was among visitors curious about the scaffolding around the statue and the carved marble mountains of despair that stand behind it. But he cannot believe that the space that held the truncated quote will now contain none of King's words.

LITTLEJOHN: Oh, I don't like that. I think they should put it back in there, but do it right.

KEYES: National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson says whether or not the work is done, the scaffolding will come down for the events surrounding the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and visitors will be able to enjoy the King memorial unencumbered. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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