August 2, 2013

Disputed inscription removed from MLK Memorial

Plans call for sculptor Lei Yixin to carve grooves over the former words to match existing horizontal marks in the memorial.

By Brett Zongker / The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A Chinese sculptor has removed a disputed inscription from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial statue that he designed on the National Mall and said Thursday that he is working on a new finish for the side of the artwork.

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Sculptor Lei Yixin surveys the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington to prepare for removal of the "Drum Major" inscription. The plan calls for completion of the work in time for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The memorial will remain open during the work, although access to some areas of the memorial will be affected.


click image to enlarge

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is seen in Washington on Monday. The controversial inscription on its side reads: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." The truncated line was paraphrased from a sermon King delivered in 1968: "Yes, 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 the other shallow things will not matter.''


Plans call for sculptor Lei Yixin to carve grooves over the former words to match existing horizontal "striation" marks in the memorial. Lei said he is working to deepen all the memorial's grooves so that they will match.

The disputed inscription was a paraphrase from King's "Drum Major" speech. It read, "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

Critics, including the poet Maya Angelou, argued that the quotation was taken out of context when it was paraphrased and shortened. Angelou said it made King sound arrogant.

Lei said the corrective work was going well and is on track to finish before commemorations of the 50th anniversary of King's "I Have A Dream" speech at the March on Washington on Aug. 28.

"The difficulty is the new striations — so they won't damage the integrity of the statue itself," Lei said through an interpreter.

Lei said there was not a high probability, though, of the new carvings causing any cracks.

"It's not a big problem because the striations are designed to appear on the sides," he said. "If it has some cracks, we could deal with them."

Lei said he heard about King when he was growing up in China. He called King a "world-class hero" who was well-known in China and said it was an honor to create the statue.

"Right now, as we see, the statue looks really good," he said through his son, who served as an interpreter. "He thinks Americans would not regret picking him as the sculptor."

More than 5.2 million people visited the memorial last year, according to the National Park Service.

National Mall Superintendent Robert Vogel said the work should be completed a few days before commemorations of the March on Washington anniversary between Aug. 24 and Aug. 28.

"The response to the memorial has been overwhelmingly positive" since it was completed, Vogel said. "People have come and wept at the base of the statue. I think people have seen it as a great work of art and a great addition to the National Mall."

The changes will cost between $700,000 and $800,000, Vogel said. The work will be paid for from funds raised to build the memorial that were transferred to the National Park Foundation for repairs and maintenance.

No taxpayer dollars will be used to make the repairs, Vogel said.

The removal of an inscription or piece of a memorial is rare in Washington, but debate and controversy often accompanies every memorial construction project.

This situation was unusual in that the shortened version of the inscription was not formally approved by two panels that oversee architecture and design in the nation's capital, Vogel said. Angelou also served on a panel of historians who recommended this memorial's inscriptions.

Harry Johnson, who led the group that built the memorial, said he was pleased everyone had agreed on a solution.

"There's controversy every time you build a memorial," he said. "I can't explain it. All I can say is we're here to take care of it and make sure it's done correctly."

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