The designers of the recently-unveiled Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall were so taken with some powerful lines delivered by King at an Atlanta sermon two months before his death, that they decided to inscribe the words on the memorial. The lines were:
"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."
Poet Maya Angelou, a friend of King's and consultant on the memorial, doesn't have a problem with those lines, but she is perturbed with the quotes being paraphrased due to space considerations, following a mid-creation design change to the statue. The shortened inscription on the north face of the thirty-foot-high granite statue now reads: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."
With a poet's sensitivity to precision and context, the eighty-three-year-old Angelou, who enjoyed a resurgence with her reading at President Clinton's inauguration, complained:
"The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply. He had no arrogance at all. 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."
When informed why the quote had to be paraphrased after she requested it be changed, Angelou replied, "Too bad."
I get Angelou's gripe with how her friend is being represented to posterity, but personally, I don't see much of a problem with it. There's not much dispute that King was a great man (allegations of womanizing aside). People know what he stood for, know he wasn't in a marching band, and the average tourist isn't going to have a linguistic beef with the inscription. And I can't see anyone not being copacetic with the south-face inscription, which reads "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope."
The inscription isn't the only controversy being generated by the memorial. Some people have taken issue with how Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin depicted the figure of King. King was known as a pacifist, but the memorial portrays him with arms crossed, and a strong, stern look on his face, which, unfortunately, some people may find reminiscent of certain despots. The memorial was about fifteen years in the making, which leads one to believe that, even with 150 years, you can't please everyone.