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Maya Angelou says MLK memorial inscription makes him look like ‘arrogant twit’

The poet Maya Angelou is not pleased with how the new memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall has turned out. Angelou, who served as a consultant for the memorial, thinks a paraphrased inscription on the north face of the 30-foot-tall granite statue of King “minimizes the man.”

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King said in a sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church on Feb. 4, 1968. “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 creators of the memorial wanted to use that quote, but because of a change during construction, they were forced to paraphrase. On the statue, it reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” Angelou told The Washington Post. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.”

“He had no arrogance at all,” she said. “He had a humility that comes from deep inside. The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”

Angelou thinks the inscription needs to be changed and put in context. When the Post told her the paraphrase was the result of a design constraint, she replied “too bad.”

The memorial’s executive architect, Ed Jackson Jr., told the Post the quote was originally intended for the south face of the statue. But he and other planners changed their mind and decided that the other inscription on the statue, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” should be seen first by visitors, and put on the south face. By the time they informed the statue’s sculptor, Lei Yixin, the north face was already prepared for the shorter inscription. 

“We sincerely felt passionate that the man’s own eulogy should be expressed on the stone,” Jackson said. “We said the least we could do was define who he was based on his perception of himself: ‘I was a drum major for this, this and this.’ ”

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