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Much-criticized 'drum major' quote on Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to be removed

Charles Dharapak / AP

A disputed "drum major" inscription on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington will be removed, government officials say.


A controversial "drum major" inscription will be removed from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington but won’t be replaced with King’s full quotation as some had hoped, the Interior Department announced Tuesday.

Workers will scratch off the wording on the east side of the memorial and match the west side with new striations in order to make the look consistent.

The makeover will cost between $700,000 and $900,000.


The plan to remove, instead of replace, the quote was recommended by the original sculptor, Lei Yixin, as the safest way to ensure the structural integrity of the memorial was not compromised, the Interior Department said. The King family, the group that built the memorial and the National Park Service also were consulted about the change, the department added.

"The memorial stands as a testament to Dr. King's struggle for civil rights, and a dream of dignity, respect and justice for all," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement. "I am proud that all parties have come together on a resolution that will help ensure the structural integrity of this timeless and powerful monument to Dr. King's life and legacy."

"We are grateful that Secretary Salazar's office and the National Park Service has taken such care to maintain the spirit and appearance of such an important monument to our country's history and my father's memory," Bernice A. King, King's youngest daughter and CEO of the King Center in Atlanta, was quoted as saying by the Interior Department.

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Critics, including poet Maya Angelou, complained after the memorial opened in 2011 that the paraphrased quotation took King's words out of context, making him sound arrogant. The paraphrase reads: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

The full quotation was taken from a 1968 sermon about two months before King was assassinated. It reads: "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 alteration plan will be submitted to the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission in January for their review.

Work is scheduled to begin in February or March and be completed in the spring, according to federal officials. Lei, the original sculptor, will perform the stone work to remove the inscription, and the memorial will remain open to visitors.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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