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Truncated King quote removed from memorial

Sculptor aims to have project ready for 50th anniversary of March on Washington

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2013

The controversial "drum major" quote has been removed from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and the new, finished product should be ready days before events to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Aug. 28.

Lei Yixin, the Chinese sculptor who crafted the memorial, said all that's left to do is match existing ridges and marks along the enormous stone to the new ones that will replace the quote, and he's confident the public will approve.

"I'll make sure the statue looks good," Mr. Lei said Thursday with the help of his son, who served as translator.

The "striations" represent the tearing of the "Stone of Hope" from the "Mountain of Despair," a pair of carved stone features that invite visitors to walk through a path in the "mountain" to the towering sculpture of King looking out across the Tidal Basin.

"The challenge is to maintain the integrity of the statue while removing the inscription," Mr. Lei said, adding that if any cracks did form, "we'll deal with it. There's not a high possibility of that."

The quote's erasure is the culmination of more than a year of complaints from critics who said the paraphrased quote distorted the full quote's meaning.

The quote etched into one side of the enormous boulder reads: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

The full version of King's "drum major" quote is: "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."

Mr. Lei said he understood the reasoning behind the erasure.

"I can accept that. Any artwork can have some controversy," he said. "When I was young, Martin Luther King was well known in China. I put a lot of effort and heart into the project. The statue really looks good."

The pathway through the rocks is blocked by chain-link fencing and scaffolding but the memorial is open to the public. National Park Service Superintendent Bob Vogel said it might be closed for a few hours later this month while sandblasters are used to clean the monument.

Park Service officials said the fix is expected to cost $700,000 to $800,000 and is being paid for through a maintenance fund supplied by private donations specifically for commemorative works on the Mall.

The "drum major" engraving isn't the only quotation within the memorial's grounds, but it is the only etching that paraphrases King's words. It was also the only phrase not approved by the three governing bodies that oversee memorials on the Mall.

"It's certainly a hassle, but that's the story of every memorial," Mr. Vogel said. "I can't think of one that hasn't elicited controversy."

Mr. Vogel said discussions about how to fix the quote had begun with the idea of putting the full quote on the stone, but when Mr. Lei suggested creating more striations "we all thought maybe this was a good idea."

None of the National Park Service or memorial officials could say for sure how the phrase was overlooked, but Harry E. Johnson, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation, admitted that "mistakes were made about the memorial."

"All I can say is let's correct it if we can," he added. "I believe overall everybody is pleased with the memorial."

Wandering along one of the memorial's granite walls, Dallas resident Rochelle Hurd, 46, said Thursday was her first visit to the memorial.

"I wish I could have seen it before they got started," she said wistfully, looking over at the scaffolding and scrim that surrounds King's towering figure.

Despite the work zone, Ms. Hurd said she could understand the need for the fix, and she imagined that King would have wanted the change as well.

"People who knew him knew how humble he was," she said. "I just wonder why they didn't ask people, or get their opinion. Why didn't they do their research on something that could have been preventable."

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