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Dr. King Didn't Say That


Disputed Quote and Costly Repair at the MLK National Memorial
MLK monument inscription - I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness

I was a drum major...inscription on MLK Monument in Washington, DC

Photo of MLK Monument and inscription ©2012 Julian Fong (levork on flickr.com), CC BY-SA 2.0


Even before it was sculpted, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial was being modified. For several years, Chinese artist Lei Yixin received change orders to his model for the statue—make King look less stern and gruff and more kind and approachable. Sometimes Yixin could make the fix by removing a line in the face. Other changes had to be more creative, such as changing a pen to a rolled piece of paper when officials realized the writing implement was in the wrong hand. Although the design was approved in 2006, the national monument that forever would be a presence in Washington, D.C. was not officially dedicated until August 2011.

And then the criticism began again.


Observers noticed that Dr. King's words, inscribed in stone, were abbreviated and taken out of context. In particular, the phrase shown here—"I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness"—was an expression that King did not use. Many people who visited the monument felt that Words on Monuments matter, and they wanted something to be done.


After much consultation with and input from stakeholders, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced a workaround. Instead of modifying the quotation, the two lines on the stone would be removed "by carving striations over the lettering." In 2013, sculptor Lei Yixin chiseled through the disputed words and added grooves to eliminate the controversial inscription from the monument. The grooves suggest that the "Stone of Hope" is pulled from the rock wall behind it, known as the "Mountain of Despair."

The U.S. Department of the Interior, the agency in charge of the National Park Service that oversees the Washington, D.C. monuments, said that this solution was the recommendation of the original sculptor, Master Lei Yixin, "as the safest way to ensure the structural integrity of the memorial was not compromised."

Source: Press Release, Secretary Salazar Provides Update on Resolution to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial, 12/11/2012, http://www.doi.gov/news/pressreleases/secretary-salazar-provides-update-on-resolution-to-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-memorial.cfm [accessed January 14, 2013].

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