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Maya Angelou missed the whole 'carved in stone' part

September 1, 2011 |  1:55 pm


Maya Angelou caused a stir this week by objecting to the quotations inscribed on the recently unveiled Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington. "I was a drum major for justice peace and righteousness," one quote reads.

Angelou, 83, knew King during the Civil Rights movement. "The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit," she said Tuesday. "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. He had a humility that comes from deep inside."

Angelou objected to the way King's original quote had been truncated. In a 1968 sermon, King spoke of himself in the past tense. "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." He was assassinated exactly two months later.

"The 'if' clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely," Angelou said. "It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was .... It makes him seem an egotist."

As valid as her concerns may be, they seem to miss the point that the words are already carved in stone.

The edit was made while the memorial was being constructed. "As you move through the process, things happen and you have to make design changes on the spot," said executive architect Ed Jackson Jr., who points out that he infomed an oversight body, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, and "They didn't have a problem with it."

The quote was selected back in 2007 under the auspices of a Council of Historians. Two of the council's more active members, James Chaffers and John Lockyard, were also informed of the edit that would be made to the quote in order to fit it in the space available. Angelou's name also appears on the Council of Historians list, although it is said she did not attend its meetings.

Of course Angelou, a writer and poet, is concerned about being exact with words. But her complaints are arriving a little late for a memorial made of stone.


Martin Luther King Jr.: Memorials and complexity

Thinking about Martin Luther King Jr., bookishly

Steve Tyler reading Maya Angelou? Should be some memoir

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Credit: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press