Legendary poet and author Maya Angelou is not happy about the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Specifically, she thinks the inscription carved into the side of the 30-foot-tall granite statue makes the late civil rights leader look “arrogant.”
The inscription, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” paraphrases a sermon King delivered in 1968, two months before his assassination:
“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 memorial’s designers wanted to incorporate the quote into the statue, which depicts King standing with his arms folded as if he’s emerging from the stone. According to the Washington Post, a design change forced them to paraphrase the quote instead of using it in full.
Angelou, one of the memorial’s consultants, said the resulting shorter inscription is misleading and ought to be changed.
“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” Angelous, 83, told the Post Tuesday. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.”
The memorial was scheduled for an official dedication this past weekend, the 48th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but the event was postponed due to Hurricane Irene.
“He had no arrogance at all,” Angelou said. “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.”
In its current form, she said, the inscription makes King seem like an “egotist.”
“He would never have said that of himself. He said ‘you’ might say it,” she added.
According to the Post, when Angelou was told the shortened version was used so it would fit the statue, she replied, “Too bad.”
Ed Jackson Jr., the memorial’s executive architect, told the Post the full drum major quote was originally intended for the statue’s south face, the first one for visitors to see as they approach. Instead, they decided they preferred another inscription, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope” for that spot instead, and informed the sculptor.
When they told the sculptor, Lei Yixin, he said the quote would have to be paraphrased because the north face of the statue had already been prepared for the shorter inscription.
“We said, ‘…We’ve only got this much space [on the north face], what are we going to put up there?’” Jackson told the Post.
“We sincerely felt passionate that the man’s own eulogy should be expressed on the stone,” he said. “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.’”
He said they told the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, which was overseeing the project, about the situation and “They didn’t have a problem with it.”
“Now, did I ask Maya Angelou?” he said. “No.”
The inscription dust-up is only the latest controversy regarding King memorial, which has been in the works for more than a decade. Others have complained about the fact that the sculptor Yixin is Chinese, not American, and that King’s facial expression does not portray his “peaceful nature.”