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MLK’s quote goes unfixed for six months
Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t say it exactly that way, but an inaccurate quote remains etched into his granite memorial in Washington more than six months after National Park Service officials vowed to fix it.
Officials said they are waiting for the end of the summer tourist season, which means hundreds of thousands of visitors have seen the “drum major” quote. Even now, as dignitaries prepare to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the memorial Tuesday night, there is no sign or anything else there to let the public know anything is wrong with the wording, which some observers say is an insult to the civil rights leader’s memory.
Harry E. Johnson Sr., president of the foundation that oversaw the memorial’s creation, said changing the quote requires coordinating with the memorial’s master sculptor from China and a stone carver from Rhode Island to set a price and get the work completed. He said the parties involved in the discussions did not want to cut off public access to the memorial at its busiest time.
“I think the biggest deal was, ‘How do you get it done so you don’t affect it?’” Mr. Johnson said Monday. “It’s more or less a matter of getting all the players together and deciding how to do it, when to do it.”
For months, observers said the truncated version of the quote etched into granite — “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness” — was a disservice the civil rights leader, whose memorial was dedicated by President Obama on Oct. 16. The edited version made King sound arrogant, poet Maya Angelou said. The correct version in quotes should read: “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.”
Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar said in February that he had met with members of the King family and decided to replace the text with the full quote. Tour guides could be overheard this month telling visitors that some people found the abbreviated version objectionable and that it would be replaced.
The full quote was approved by the Fine Arts Commission during the design review process, so the changes did not need further review, officials said.
The memorial by the Tidal Basin has been open to the public since last August, welcoming visitors to recognize King in a peaceful setting of granite sculptures and quotations along two walls that encompass the site.
The foundation plans to celebrate the memorial’s anniversary Tuesday alongside D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and federal officials with a public screening of a film about two women in the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Ala. It also plans to lay a wreath at the memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 21, the date that federal officials cited as their deadline for the “drum major” project.
A spokeswoman for the National Park Service said this month that officials still plan to replace the quote in time for the festivities and were hoping for philanthropic support to pay for it. The Park Service did not respond to a series of follow-up questions Monday.
Mr. Johnson said he met last week with Robert Stanton, a top deputy at the Department of the Interior, to discuss the project. He said he thinks the work can be performed between October and mid-January, once they are able to establish the availability of master sculptor Lei Yixin and stone carver Nicholas Benson. Both men performed the original work on the memorial.
The project should not take more than 30 days, but it is intricate and requires the replacement of some granite stones by Mr. Lei, according to Mr. Johnson. He said they still do not know how much the project will cost, pending a quote from the men who will perform the work, but he noted that the $120 million price tag for the overall memorial has been paid.
Mr. Benson said by phone Monday that he had not heard from federal officials since “wintertime.”
“I’ve been involved in that process, but it’s still under consideration,” he said, adding that he did not know whether any deadlines had changed. “They’re just working through everything. I guess time will tell.”
Mr. Benson said that to amend the quote the stone must be ground down to the depth of the letters — about one inch — so that a new inscription can be made.
“Aesthetically, I like the way it is,” he said. “But, again, I’m not the one in charge.”
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About the Author
Tom Howell Jr. covers politics for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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