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Words on Monuments

Mistakes & Misquotes on Memorials and Statues


Martin Luther King Jr. Stone of Hope Statue

One side of the Stone of Hope statue at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial carries an altered version of the leader's famous Drum Major speech.

NPS.gov photo
Designing a building or memorial is hard enough. What happens when the work also includes words? Suddenly the focus shifts from visual to verbal as the artist and architect agonize over typography—making language visible. Words, quotations, and lists of names and dates must convey information and, ideally, flow seamlessly with the design. Hopefully the words will also be historically accurate.

How do architects grapple with the challenge? Do the words to be inscribed influence the overall design? Or, do the demands of the design alter the text?

Inscriptions at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial

According to some critics, architect Dr. Ed Jackson, Jr. ran afoul of the truth when designed the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington DC. The Memorial included words from Dr. King's 1968 sermon known as The Drum Major Instinct. Toward the end of that rousing sermon, King said:
"Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Amen!)."
However these were not the words engraved on one side of Dr. King's statue. The sculptor of the Memorial, Chinese artist Lei Yixin, shortened the quote so it would fit in the space that the architect had allotted. With Dr. Jackson's approval, King's words became: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

Poet Maya Angelou, who was a member of the Council of Historians for the Memorial, expressed outrage. She asked why the words of the slain civil rights leader had been paraphrased. Other critics joined her in saying that the the shortened quote alters its meaning and makes Martin Luther King appear arrogant.

Dr. Jackson argued that designing a beautiful monument required abbreviating some of King's words. For him, aesthetics trumped authenticity.

After some resistance, officials eventually decided to remove the historical inaccuracies from the Memorial. The National Park Service had sculptor Lei Yixin fix the disputed quote.

Inscriptions at the Jefferson Memorial

Architects John Russell Pope, Daniel P. Higgins, and Otto R. Eggers faced a similar challenge when they designed the nearby Jefferson Memorial. How could they represent the words of a great leader who was also a prolific writer? Like Dr. Jackson, they opted to edit famous quotes.

Panel 3 of the Jefferson Memorial reads: "Commerce between master and slave is despotism." But, according to Monticello.org, Jefferson originally wrote: "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other."

Indeed, some of the inscriptions carved in stone at the Jefferson Memorial are composites created by patching different documents together.

Inscriptions at the Lincoln Memorial

When architect Henry Bacon designed the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, he combined a mammoth 19-foot statue by Chester French with historically accurate inscriptions of speeches written by Lincoln. Imagine, however, if Bacon had taken short cuts. What if Lincoln's famous words "With malice toward none, with charity for all" became, "With malice"? Would the shortened version change our perception of Abraham Lincoln?

The opposite wall of the Memorial contains the entire, unedited text of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. If the architect had desired to save wall space, he might have shortened the speech to: "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not."

What story would the revised quote tell about the great leader?

Inscriptions at the US Supreme Court Building

Supposing that architect Cass Gilbert had been cramped for space when he designed the U.S. Supreme Court building. Imagine if he wanted to avoid the wordy balance and scale metaphors. Couldn’t he simply remove the word "Equal" from "Equal Justice Under Law"? Would the meaning change?

Inscriptions at the 9/11 National Memorial

The National 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan took nearly a decade to construct. The project might have been completed more quickly if the architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker hadn't spent so long on the arranging the placement of nearly 3,000 names around the fountain parapet. Could they have left out a few? Would editorializing change the memorial's meaning and impact?

Inscriptions at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial

Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, felt that politics had eclipsed the veterans, their service, and their lives. She kept the memorial design elegantly simple so that attention could focus on the men and women who died. Over fifty-eight thousand names are arranged in the chronological order of their deaths or MIA status from the Vietnam conflict. The height of the stone slowly rises and falls, as does any story of conflict. At first, few die. Then escalation. Then withdrawal. The story of the Vietnam conflict is gracefully told in stone with room enough for each citizen soldier.

Questions For Designers

Was poet Maya Angelo right to condemn architect Ed Jackson, Jr.? Or, do architects and artists have the right to change the wording in historical documents? How important are written words in the language of architecture? Post your views below.

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