King Memorial Quote Flap Continues

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

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

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.