The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the Mall drew plenty of controversy even before its dedication on Oct. 16. One of the earliest objections was to King’s pose: The civil rights leader stands arms crossed, looking impatient, indignant, glowering. Critics called it a confrontational stance, too angry and menacing for a man of peaceful resistance. Whether the critics are right or wrong, it does seem the perfect pose for this moment, when the granite King — along with the rest of us — waits impatiently for authorities to do what is right.
The Interior Department has yet to conclude its deliberations over whether and how to change the words carved over King’s left shoulder. It shouldn’t be this hard. In a too-hasty design decision made without consultation with the relevant parties, the lead architect of the memorial truncated a quotation of King’s, inadvertently altering its meaning. A long and nuanced statement by King’s decrying egotism and self-promotion wound up, perversely, as a boast: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” the memorial now says. In life, King never made such a pompous claim.
Responding to intense public criticism — from, among others, the poet Maya Angelou, who said the misquote made King sound like “an arrogant twit,” and Martin Luther King III, who said, “That was not what Dad said” — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar expressed his concern as well. We optimistically predicted a decision by the end of the year. We’re still waiting.
The call for revision has come from historians, from experts in writing, from King’s children and from civil rights veterans who struggled alongside him. Those who argue against the change say only that the statement etched in stone was not meant to be a quote. But how else is one to interpret a first-person declarative statement on a monument whose only other inscriptions are direct quotes?
The decision should be easy. The monument exists to recall a great leader and orator, a man who chose his words carefully. To be any less careful is to dishonor his memory. We can only hope that it is the historically less significant parts of the decision — how to correct a granite carving, and who gets blame and the bill — that are taking time. After all, even in a press release, words matter.
In any event, it is ironically appropriate that King has his arms crossed: a man of stone, impatient, drumming his fingers for justice, peace and righteousness.
The Washington Post (Dec. 30)