Maya Angelou Slams MLK Memorial Inscription

The MLK memorial (Nikki Kahn/the Washington Post)
The MLK memorial (Nikki Kahn/the Washington Post)

Carved on the north face of the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, an inscription reads: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."


"The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit," poet, author and memorial consultant Maya Angelou said Tuesday. "He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply."

What's the problem with the quote? It was taken a bit out of context. Two months before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a sermon that contained the phrase, saying, "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.”


Angelou says, "The 'if' clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely." The paraphrase "minimizes the man," she said. "It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was … It makes him seem an egotist."

The Washington Post reports that creators of the memorial had originally intended to use most of the direct "drum major" quote, with "Martin Luther King Jr." appearing at the end, but after design changes, the north face of the statue couldn't accommodate all of the text.

The criticism is valid, but it only serves to emphasize that a walk around the memorial shouldn't represent anyone's entire experience with the life of MLK. It would be impossible for the structure to perfectly communicate the many nuances of his work and personality in a way that would ring true for all of us. The good news is that it seems to be serving its purpose as the beginning, rather than the end, of a conversation about the civil rights leader's legacy.

Read more at the Washington Post.

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