Maya Angelou Outraged Over Paraphrasing of MLK Jr Quote on Memorial

Posted on August 31, 2011

The Washington Post reports that Maya Angelou is outraged over a shortened quote that ended up as a centerpiece of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. The original quote by Dr. King came just two months before he was assassinated, when he was giving a sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He was discussing what they might say about him in a future eulogy that summed up his life:

"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."
That quote got shortened and transcribed on the statue of Dr. King to: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." Dr. Angelou says,
"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....It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was. . . . It makes him seem an egotist."

We have to agree with Dr. Angelou. The new phrase changes the meaning of the quote entirely. The man who made the decision, architect Ed Jackson Jr., said that he originally planned to use the whole quote and place it on a giant rock at the entry to the park. But then the memorial committee changed the location of the quote. By that time, the sculptor hadn't left enough room for the longer quote on the side of the statue. Instead of picking a different quote, the architect hacked apart Dr. King's words and shoehorned them into the available space.

The original, shorter quote, that was supposed to go on the statue was "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope." That would have worked much better on the statue. Whose bright idea was it to give the architect final say over what quotes to use, anyway? What a disaster.