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article imageMonumental misquote on Martin Luther King's Washington memorial

By Joan Firstenberg     Jan 14, 2012 in Politics
Washington - Martin Luther King's impressive memorial which lies alongside the National Mall in Washington D.C. bears a quote that angry critics now says is out of context to what he actually said and makes King seem conceited and self-involved.
The so-called quote on the new MLK monument in Washington currently says,
"I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."
But as King's son pointed at during an interview with CNN,
"That's not what Dad said."
The abbreviated and paraphrased version of the line first came to attention last summer when poet and author Maya Angelou said it made the civil rights leader appear to be arrogant. She pointed out that the actual quote from King's 1968 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, was:
"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 were uttered by MLK in a speech one month before he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Poet Angelou said last year that the mistake undermines the point King was making in the sermon, which was about the folly of wanting to be great without doing any great difficult things.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that on Friday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, gave the King Memorial Foundation 30 days to come up with an alternative excerpt for 30-foot-tall statue.
“This is important because Dr. King and his presence on the Mall is a forever presence for the United States of America, and we have to make sure that we get it right.”
The BBC reports that the problem apparently began with the man who was commissioned to create the monument. He is Lei Yixin, a Chinese master sculptor, who worked with an American inscription carver, Nick Benson. The pair say they had an aesthetic problem with the length of the quote and so they changed it. But they did that after the official plans for the monument were revealed. Because of this, the Interior Department and other groups supervising the monument's creation didn't know that the actual quote had been boiled down to a few words.
But the shortened quote has turned into a simmering controversy about the people chosen to create the monument. They point out that Mr. Yixin is known for his socialist realist sculptures like the one he did of Mao Zedong, the stern and brutal man who founded Communist China. Chinese civil rights activists voiced their displeasure with the criticism.
And the American stone-carving community shot back that American workers should have been used on the project. Clint Burton, a stone worker in South Carolina says
“There's no reason that an American story can't be told by Americans. Even if we did a statue that looked horrendous, it would be done with integrity and with the intention of American tone and an American story, and a proper interpretation of history.”
And some observers now complain that MLK looks slightly Asian and overly stern, which they say does not reflect King's real character.
Before the monument's official unveiling last October, the executive architect, Ed Jackson, Jr., defended the editing. He pointed out that the whole quote just would not fit in the space allotted, and he said,
"We have the historical perspective. We can say emphatically he was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
There is a large group of people who support the monument as it stands. They say the $120 million sculpture is a solid representation of both King's global vision of raising hopes for the repressed and the practical realities of cost and manufacturing. The Foundation paid the King family $800,000 for the rights to use quotes from King's archives.
Comedian Stephen Colbert used Shakespeare's turn of the pen to sum up the controversy last year,
“Brevity is the soul of saving money on chiseling fees,”
Mr. Salazar's decision was made as the US prepares to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, a federal holiday marking the anniversary of his birth.
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