Almost troubled from its inception, the completion of the Martin Luther King memorial statue is accompanied with a measure of bitterness, when seen through the lens of Maya Angelou. The prolific poet and author has expressed her disapproval of the abbreviated quotation that was selected to be etched in the stone of the King’s long awaited memorial, saying it makes him sound like “an arrogant twit” which “minimizes the man.”
The original quote was derived from a sermon King delivered on February 4, 1968, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, two months before he was assassinated, about the eulogy that could be given when he died, MSNBC reports.
In his words:
“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 paraphrased version found on the statue is as followed:
“I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
In regards to the above quote, Angelou has gone on record stating “He was anything but [a twit],” Angelou, 83, told the Washington Post. “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. The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
She also said the inscription “makes him seem like an egotist.”
In defense of Angelou’s criticism, Ed Jackson Jr., executive architect of the memorial, replied, “We sincerely felt passionate that the man’s own eulogy should be expressed on the stone. 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.’”
Time Magazine reports that Angelou was not only a friend of Dr. King, but one of the memorial’s Council of Historians tasked with selecting the inscriptions for the memorial, however according to Jackson, she did not attend the scheduled meetings to discuss inscriptions.
Jackson goes on to say, “If there’s any comment about anything, it’s late,” he said, noting others also have recently criticized pieces of the memorial. “I think it’s rather small of folks to pick at things. … This has been going on for 14 years, and all of them have had plenty of time to add their thoughts and ideas.”
Washington’s monument to Martin Luther King Jr. has been met with stern criticism from the very beginning – from commissioning a sculptor from China, to the “so-called” stern mannerism of the statue, which many complained was a misrepresentation the famed civil right leader – concluding with Angelou’s insightful observation in regards to the inscription. The following quote from Dr. King may best accompany this bittersweet moment of history, and provide some closure:
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”