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A Paraphrased Quote Stirs Criticism Of MLK Memorial

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A Paraphrased Quote Stirs Criticism Of MLK Memorial


A Paraphrased Quote Stirs Criticism Of MLK Memorial

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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.


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.


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.

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