By MARSHA MERCER
Even in an age when loose talk bombards us, one woman’s voice can change what’s literally etched in stone.
Were it not for Maya Angelou, the renowned poet and author, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall would always need an asterisk, a footnote of explanation.
I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness, it says on the north face of the granite memorial. But not for long.
“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” Angelou, then 83, complained after the memorial opened in August 2011.
Starting the 10 words with I makes it sound like a quote, but it’s a paraphrase, an unfortunate one that raises questions about what kind of man King was. Angelou insisted that King was anything but arrogant, and that he was always careful with his words.
“Some say speech is the mirror of a man’s soul, and it certainly was for Martin Luther King,” she told CNN in 2011.
The 10 words are a shortened version of four sentences from a sermon King delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta just two months before he was assassinated in 1968.
In what sounded like his own eulogy, King said: “Yes, 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 memorial’s designers originally intended to have the full drum major quote on the memorial’s south face, which visitors see first. But the designers belatedly decided Washington Post.
“In the case of the statement on the sculpture as it stands, it is not an apt reportage of what King said,” Angelou said on CNN.
Angelou knew and worked for King. Long before Bill Clinton asked her to read a poem at his first presidential inauguration in 1993, long before she published 30 titles, Angelou accepted King’s offer to be Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was devastated when he was assassinated on her birthday, the biography on her website says.
“He had no arrogance at all…it makes him seem an egotist,” she said of the slain civil rights leader.
Her words moved the federal bureaucracy.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced in a news release Tuesday that the 10 words would be removed “by carving striations over the lettering to match the existing scratch marks” on the south face. The sculptor recommended removing the words instead of replacing them as the safest way to ensure the structural integrity of the memorial, Salazar said.
The King family says it would have preferred the entire drum major quotation but appreciates the care the government took to get the memorial right.
The memorial will remain open when the work begins in February or March, after Obama’s inauguration and the commemoration of King’s birthday. The $700,000 to $900,000 cost reportedly will be paid from a maintenance fund raised by the MLK memorial foundation and given to the National Park Service.
In August 2011, when I first visited the memorial, a National Park Service guide standing nearby explained that the drum major words were a paraphrase. But a memorial for the ages shouldn’t need an asterisk or an explanation. Angelou was right to speak up, and the government was right to correct the problem in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the memorial.
Words and context count. Thanks to one woman who cares about words, this time what’s written in stone isn’t forever.
© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.