Controversial MLK Quote To Be Scrubbed From Memorial

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Dec. 12 2012 12:59 PM

A Simple Solution to the MLK Memorial Inscription Problem

The Martin Luther King Memorial is seen August 11, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/GettyImages.

The Obama administration has figured out a way to end a yearlong fight over a 10-word inscription on the side of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. They'll just remove it all together. The Washington Post with the details on the remarkably simple, if somewhat pricey, solution:

The Interior Department, which in February announced that the inscription would be replaced, said it should be removed to protect the "structural integrity" of the three-story statue of King where it appears. ... The work is expected to cost between $700,000 and $900,000 and will be paid for by a special fund created by the memorial foundation and turned over to the National Park Service for maintenance.

The inscription in question, for those of you who haven't been following this story, read: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. Critics contended those words, paraphrased from a speech King gave only months before his assassination, drastically altered the meaning of the original quote and left the civil rights icon sounding arrogant. Maya Angelou went as far as to say that it made him look like "an arrogant twit."


King delivered the full quote in question in February 1968, two months before he was killed. "If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice," King told the congregation at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. "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."

A late design change to the new monument swapped the location of that quote with another shorter one on the 30-foot-tall granite statue, forcing the famous lines to be shortened to fit on the statue’s north side. That move drew vocal complaints from Angelou and others, prompting plans to replace the truncated quote. That plan has now been scrapped for the simpler alternative of just removing it all together.

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 


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