King Memorial Quote Flap Continues

Opposed to a newly announced change, the memorial foundation says it wasn't even at the table.

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When the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial was officially dedicated last October (after the ceremony's original date was postponed in the wake of Hurricane Irene), it seemed to mark a grand finale. From Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity first hatching the idea in 1984 to Congress authorizing it in 1996 to the Alpha-established Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation raising $120 million to build it, more than two decades of work appeared finally to be complete. Yet one detail on the 30-foot granite sculpture remains in contention.

Controversy erupted last summer over the words engraved on one side of the memorial's centerpiece, called the Stone of Hope. The inscription is borrowed from a sermon that King delivered two months before he was assassinated in 1968, in which he said these lines: "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."  

The words carved into the memorial's three feet of exterior granite, however, are an abbreviated paraphrase: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." It's a discrepancy that some critics, most notably poet Maya Angelou, say misrepresents Dr. King as arrogant and boastful. A more basic critique has been that the words are simply not what he actually said and, thus, improper for a permanent monument.

Last week Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who in January directed the National Park Service to work with the foundation and the King family to address the matter, announced that a solution had been found. The King-family-approved plan is to cut several inches into the stone, stripping off the edited quotation, and replace it with a new etching of the full quote.

But officials with the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation -- which managed all aspects of the memorial, including its design -- say that the plan is too invasive (pdf) and threatens the memorial's design integrity and structure. What's more, they say, they were completely shut out of the final decision and learned about it only last week through the press.

Carol Johnson, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, told The Root that while the foundation did not sit in on any meetings, officials had telephone conversations with representatives to get their ideas. "The only people that actually met with the interior secretary and the [NPS] director were members of the King family," she said. "After a number of people gave their input, the decision has been made."

Ed Jackson Jr., the memorial's executive architect who works under the foundation, called the NPS's "unilateral" decision making "bewildering." More important, he thinks that the plan will destroy the memorial. He told The Root why he believes that the foundation's alternative proposal makes more sense, his reason for using the abridged quotation in the first place and his disappointment over the NPS and King family's about-face on the matter.

The Root: How would the National Park Service's solution threaten the structure and integrity of the Stone of Hope exactly? 

Ed Jackson: To carve away a portion of the centerpiece of the memorial and try to replace it with a matching veneer stone, it will forever look like a repair job. It won't give you the same pristine, monolithic image that you see there today.

The proposal that we put forth was adding to the existing paraphrase, and to my estimation it captures the essence of what that statement was all about. We proposed adding [to the beginning]: "Yes, if you want to say I was a drum major, say ... " That would only be two additional lines on the stone.