Poet Maya Angelou’s public outcry over the rephrasing of a quote inscribed on the Martin Luther King Jr memorial has stirred debate, and one lingering questions: Why didn’t Angelou speak up before the memorial was made?

In 1968, King delivered a speech about his eulogy at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. In the event of his death, King already knew what he wanted people to say about his legacy.

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” he told his congregation. “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.”

But King’s memorial—erected in front of the Tidal Basin—does not reflect the quote verbatim. Due to a last-minute design change, King’s exact quotes had to be paraphrased to: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.

Angelou told The Washington Post that the paraphrased version made the civil rights leader look like an “arrogant twit.

He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply,” she said.

The author said the paraphrase “minimizes the man” and makes him seem like an “egotist.”

The quote was planned for the south face, but planners changed their mind and decided to move it to the north face. By the time they wanted the change, sculptor Lei Yixin had already prepared the north face for another inscription— It was too late. The memorial’s architect Ed Jackson Jr told The Washington Post that a decision had to be made or planners would go “round and round” with changes.

“I think it’s rather small of folks to pick at things,” he said. “This has been going on for 14 years, and all of them have had plenty of time to add their thoughts and ideas.”

Jackson said he told the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, who oversaw the memorial, about the change and they were fine with the change. Angelou was listed as one of the Council of Historians to select inscriptions, but she did not attend meetings, Jackson said.

“I’m reading a lot of articles now by a lot of people on both sides of the fence, now that the monument is up,” he said.


Erica Butler

AFRO Staff Writer