By Liz Goodwin
Poet and author Maya Angelou says a recently unveiled monument to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. is inscribed with a quote taken out of context that makes the reverend seem “arrogant.”
I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness, the inscription on the 30-foot-tall statue of King reads.
“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” Angelou told The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten, and added that she thinks it should be changed. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.”
The quote was taken from a sermon King gave shortly before his death, where he imagined what his own eulogy would sound like.
“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King said. “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.”
Angelou, who has served as poet laureate of the United States and read a poem at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, told Weingarten that taking out the “if clause” at the beginning of the quote makes King sound conceited, as if he were praising himself for no reason.
Angelou was on a committee of historians who helped choose the inscriptions, and the memorial’s chief architect, Ed Jackson Jr., said that she didn’t attend any of those meetings. But it also appears that the historians chose the entire quote, not the shortened version memorial officials eventually selected due to space constraints.
The Washington Post’s Rachel Manteuffel expanded on Angelou’s criticism, noting that King’s original sermon was actually “about the desire in the human spirit to be great without doing any great, difficult things. To be at the front of the pack, drawing all the attention. This is folly, King says.” King admits in the sermon that he is also prone to this weakness like everyone else, but hopes that he will be remembered for fighting for noble causes and helping others, not for seeking attention. The shortened quote conveys none of that interpretive context.
Angelou isn’t the only one who has found fault with the four-acre, $120 million monument, which sits on the National Mall alongside monuments to Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Much of the criticism centers around the statue of King, which was controversially designed by a Chinese artist and built by Chinese workers. (Critics said an African American artist should be chosen.)
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer objects to the 30-foot-tall statue, which was sculpted by Lei Yixin, an artist from China who has also sculpted monuments of Chairman Mao. “His flat, rigid, socialist realist King does not do justice to the supremely nuanced, creative, humane soul of its subject,” Krauthammer says.
The New York Times’ Edward Rothstein writes that the imposing statue and choice of quotations turns “the minister into a warrior or a ruler.”
“The mound’s isolation from any other tall objects, its enormity and Dr. King’s posture all conspire to make him seem an authoritarian figure, emerging full-grown from the rock’s chiseled surface, at one with the ancient forces of nature, seeming to claim their authority as his,” Rothstein writes.
The Economist writes that it’s disappointing “that a man who fought so intransigently, bravely, and beautifully for equality, of all things, has been set up for worship as a towering idol, more mountain than man.”
“The image that we chose is one that, from our point of view, presents Dr. King as a philosopher of ideas, someone who was strong in his belief of what America stood for and where America should be going,” the architect, Jackson, told The Root. “The goals he set have not been reached, but we have a memorial that allows us to champion his message, so that we don’t forget to pick up where he left off in trying to make the world a better place.”