A personal friend of the late Martin Luther King Jr. is the latest critic of the new national memorial in his honor. Poet Maya Angelou complained recenty that an inscription etched on a 30-foot-tall granite statue of the civil rights leader makes him “look like an arrogant twit.”
The inscription paraphrases remarks King famously delivered in February 1968 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness,” it reads.
King’s actual remarks, uttered two months before his assassination in Memphis, were far more humble, said Angelou, in a commentary on The Washington Post.
“If you want to say that I was a drum major,” King had preached, “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.”
King “had a humility that comes from deep inside,” said Angelou. “The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
Ed Jackson Jr., the King Memorial’s executive architect, told the Post the final decision to use the inscription the 83-year-old poet finds objectionable was his to make. “Did I ask Maya Angelou?” he said. “No.”
He added that although Angelou’s name appears on the King Memorial’s Council of Historians, which was tasked with suggesting inscriptions for the memorial, the poet did not attend any of the council’s meetings.
The inscription cited by Angelou is not the only one of the 14 carved on the monument that has raised eyebrows. There also is a quote often attributed to King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” that actually originated with Theodore Parker, a Boston abolitionist and Unitarian minister.
Not since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1982 has there been as much sound and fury over a new national memorial in Washington, D.C., as there has been with the MLK project.
Even before the Memorial was unveiled, it attracted controversy, beginning with the selection of sculptor Lei Yixin, who is neither black nor American, to mold King’s figure. Some critics of Lei’s work say that it does not bear a very good resemblance to the leading figure of America’s civil rights movement.
Lei “totally missed the boat,” Ed Dwight, a sculptor who worked on the memorial, told ABC News. “Dr. King didn’t look like that. He never clothes like that. People are upset about his arms folded, the very strong look he has on his face.”
Then there’s the issue of the King family’s perceived greed. Because they have copyrighted the civil rights leader’s words and images, the non-profit foundation that built the memorial in his honor had to pay more than $800,000 in fees to use King’s likeness in the memorial.
Finally, there was the 11th hour postponement of last weekend’s scheduled dedication of the new King Memorial. Critics say the decision to cancel, because of the threat posed by Hurricane Irene, could have, and should have, been made several days earlier, before untold thousands of people were already on their way to the nation’s capital.