Maya Angelou Says Quote in MLK Memorial Out Of Context - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

Maya Angelou Says Quote in MLK Memorial Out Of Context

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The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial hasn't even been dedicated yet and now there is a new controversy about it.

At issue? A quotation on the side of the 30-foot granite statue of the slain civil rights leader. It reads, "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

The paraphrase comes from a sermon King gave two months before his assassination. In the sermon, he was speculating on how he might be eulogized.

The actual 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."

Dr. Maya Angelou, who consulted on the memorial, told the Washington Post that taking the quote out of context makes King sound like an "arrogant twit."

Visitors at the memorial FOX 5 spoke to disagreed. But historian and Director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, Louis Hicks, says context is important. He too believes the quote should have been included in its context.

In a statement to FOX 5, the executive architect of the MLK Memorial Project said the foundation "feels comfortable with the choices we needed to make based on the space available and the messages that we wanted to convey to visitors ... We have no plans to alter the Memorial."

Statement from Dr. Ed Jackson
Executive Architect, Washington, DC Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation

"The Washington, DC Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc. feels comfortable with the choices we needed to make based on the space available and the messages that we wanted to convey to visitors. We received guidance from members of our Council of Historians to select fourteen quotations and two statements to inscribe into the granite walls and the Stone of Hope which best characterize and reflect Dr. King as a leader as well as the ecumenical principles of democracy, hope, justice, and love for which he so bravely stood.

"In regard to the statement inscribed on the north side of the Stone of Hope which reads, “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness,” in no way do we believe that this paraphrased statement diminishes Dr. King’s intent of the words he delivered in his February 1968 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Dr. King said, “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.” The inscription on the Stone of Hope comes directly from Dr. King’s words. Our goal is to help visitors learn about Dr. King’s central beliefs and commitments.

"We have no plans to alter the Memorial."


By Associated Press

Poet and author Maya Angelou is taking issue with a paraphrased quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. inscribed in his new memorial in Washington, saying the shortened version makes the civil rights leader sound like an "arrogant twit" because it's out of context.

The words were from a sermon King delivered Feb. 4, 1968, at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, two months before he was assassinated, about a eulogy that could be given when he died.

King said, "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."

On Tuesday, Angelou, who consulted on the memorial, told The Washington Post (http://wapo.st/o74pLU) that the shortened version of those words sounds egotistical and should be changed.

It reads: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

The phrase is inscribed on a statue of King without quotation marks because it is paraphrased. It is not grouped with 14 quotations from King that are part of the memorial plaza.

The paraphrased version "minimizes the man," said the 83-year-old Angelou. "It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was. ... It makes him seem an egotist."

King would have never said of himself that he was a drum major, Angelou said, but rather that others might say that of him.

"He had a humility that comes from deep inside," Angelou told the Post. "The `if' clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely."

Memorial planners said they were fond of the quotation but that it had to be shortened because of a change during the King statute's creation. They originally planned to use most of the "drum major" quote but changed its placement, and sculptor Lei Yixin told them there wasn't enough space.

"We sincerely felt passionate that the man's own eulogy should be expressed on the stone," said Ed Jackson Jr., executive architect of the memorial. "We said the least we could do was define who he was based on his perception of himself: `I was a drum major for this, this and this."

Project planners outlined the problem and their proposed solution to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which had to approve the memorial's design. The federal arts panel did not object, Jackson said.

Angelou was one of the memorial's Council of Historians tasked with selecting the inscriptions for the memorial. But she did not attend meetings about the inscriptions, Jackson said.

Two other memorial advisers were consulted, Jon Onye Lockard and James Chaffers of the University of Michigan. But Jackson said he ultimately had to make the decision.

Lockard told the Post he was fine with the shortened inscription.

"If there's any comment about anything, it's late," he said, noting others also have recently criticized pieces of the memorial. "I think it's rather small of folks to pick at things. ... This has been going on for 14 years, and all of them have had plenty of time to add their thoughts and ideas."

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