Renovation is underway at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Northwest Washington to remove the controversial “drum major” inscription from the side of the structure.

On a recent afternoon, the 30-foot statue, a likeness of King with arms folded emerging from a “Stone of Hope” was surrounded by scaffolding, some of it draped in white. Tourists who visited the site expressed surprise and dismay that the statue was only partially visible.

“Ohhhhh,” said Tania Reynolds, 27, of Chicago, who visited the memorial with a group of friends who had driven to town for a long weekend. She looked up at the statue of King with a frown.

“I heard they were going to change it, but I thought it would already be done,” Reynolds said. “Isn’t the March on Washington coming up soon? I will be back then and I want to see the whole thing.”

Despite the scaffolding, visitors posed for pictures in front of the statue.
“I’m glad they are fixing it,” said Sherrietta Smith, 39, of Charlotte, N.C., after taking pictures with relatives in front of the memorial.

“I understand that a lot of people thought it was unnecessary to change it, but if there is anything controversial about it, they needed to fix that.
The attention should be on Dr. King and what he stood for. His words, as they were said, should be on it. Why would anybody change his words anyway?” she said.

The “drum major” inscription, one of several King quotes at the memorial site, was called into question by author and poet Maya Angelou. She said the shortened version of King’s words made him seem to be arrogant. The wording on the memorial reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” King’s actual quote was: “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.”

The words were part of a sermon, entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he had been baptized, preached a sermon at age 19 that led to him being ordained as a minister and served as co-pastor with his father, Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., known as “Daddy” King. He delivered the sermon on Feb. 4, 1968, exactly two months to the day before he was assassinated, according to the National Park Service website and historical accounts.

Some had hoped that the wording would be changed to reflect the original quote, but the decision was made late last year to remove it instead.

Officials of the National Park Service have pledged to have the work completed byAug. 28, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which is expected to bring untold thousands of tourists to the nation’s capital and the memorial to commemorate the historic event.

The memorial was dedicated on Aug. 28, 2011, the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.


Zachary Lester

AFRO Staff Writer