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.

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.


The design impact of putting the full quote would be to change the size of the letters. Our artists of record — not only the sculptor himself, Lei Yixin, but Nick Benson, the engraver — felt that the font size should approximately match the font on the other side that says, "Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope." With the two lines that we want to add, we are still able to retain the size of the font. But with this full quote the Park Service is talking about, they will have to reduce the size of the font considerably.

TR: After Secretary Salazar ordered a correction last month, did you present your proposal to the National Park Service? 


EJ: Yes, we did. They said we were going to have a meeting with a committee that they were pulling together and that we would discuss it. The committee met, from what we read in the paper, and had conversations subsequent to that. But we were not invited. We found out about their decision through the press.

EJ: That is the bewildering position that I have been struggling with for the last couple of days. We are the proponents for the memorial. The foundation is the organization to which Congress authorized building the memorial in honor of Dr. King.


They did not give that authority to the Park Service. They gave it to Alpha Phi Alpha, and Alpha Phi Alpha formed this foundation. So any proposed change of that nature should come through the organization itself.

I think it also begs the question of whether or not we're infringing upon the artistic rights of Lei Yixin by changing something on an art object, designed by him, without getting his blessing or viewpoint on what is being proposed. It actually represents his work, as opposed to the artwork of the National Park Service.


TR: How did this conflict happen in the first place? In your years of planning, didn't all concerned parties know that the abbreviated quote would be on the memorial well before it was carved? 

EJ: You're raising an issue without looking at it in perspective. The King family and the Park Service saw this particular quote many times. Like the majority of Americans who come and visit this memorial every day, they felt that the statement captures the essence of how Dr. King said he wanted to be remembered.


It was only when an editorial from the Washington Post called that particular line into question, from that reporter's point of view, did the views of those who had seen it many times change. Prior to that, it was all accepted by everyone. I take exception to how one individual can change a course of action that had already been reviewed and accepted.

TR: But do you understand the criticism over editing Dr. King's words, and how it could be seen as changing the spirit in which they were originally said? 


EJ: Our attempt was to develop this memorial as a living memorial, in that it speaks to you as if King himself were standing there before you. We paraphrased the statement as if he were actually speaking to you. It was never intended to be a direct quotation.

TR: So, what now? What are the next steps? 

EJ: I've said all along that the Commission of Fine Arts should weigh in on the technical aspects of what the Park Service is proposing, and to determine whether or not it can be done without jeopardizing the quality of the work that the sculptor has successfully completed. Understand, from the standpoint of whether you can cut this out and put in a new stone — you can. But from the standpoint of what it's going to look like, we know that it will look like a patch job.


Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.