Angelou says King statue paraphrase ‘minimizes the man’
Change was made to fit free space
WASHINGTON - On Feb. 4, 1968, two months before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a haunting sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church about a eulogy that might be given in the event of his death.
“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,’’ King told the congregation. “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 sermon was so powerful the designers of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington selected those lines to be inscribed on the memorial’s towering statue of the civil rights leader.
But because of a design change during the statue’s creation, the exact quotes had to be paraphrased, and now poet and author Maya Angelou, one of the memorial’s best-known consultants, says the shortened inscription is misleading and ought to be changed.
Carved on the north face of the 30-foot-tall granite statue, the inscription reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.’’
“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,’’ Angelou, 83, said Tuesday. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.
“He had no arrogance at all.’’
He had a humility that comes from deep inside. 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 drum major reference “wasn’t all that he was,’’ she said. “He would never have said that of himself. He said ‘you’ might say it.’’
She said the quote should be changed to put it in context.
Told the quote had to be paraphrased to fit the available space, she replied, “Too bad.’’
The inscription is one of two on the statue, which depicts King with his arms folded standing as if emerging from a huge block of stone. The memorial is on the northwestern shore of the Tidal Basin, just southwest of the National World War II Memorial.
The inscription on the statue’s south face says: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.’’
The 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.
The memorial’s executive architect, Ed Jackson Jr., said the quote was originally planned for the statue’s south face, the one viewers first see.
But he said planners changed their minds and decided to move the drum major inscription to the north face.
They preferred the statue’s other inscription - “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope’’ - to be seen first, on the south face, because it is the main theme of the memorial’s design.
But when they informed the statue’s sculptor, Lei Yixin, he told them he had already prepared the north face for the shorter “despair’’ inscription and that the whole “drum major’’ quote would not fit, Jackson said.
Jackson said the project outlined the situation and the solution to the US Commission of Fine Arts, which was overseeing the memorial design. “They didn’t have a problem with it.’’