Controversy Over King Memorial Inscription Isn't the First

VIDEO: Poet says inscription makes civil rights leader sound like "an arrogant twit."
WATCH Maya Angelou Blasts MLK Memorial

Poet and author Maya Angelou's criticism of one of the inscriptions on the Martin Luther King Memorial isn't the first flap over a national monument. King's neighbors on the National Mall -- the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials and the monument to Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- have all been subject to their own controversies.

Earlier this week, Angelou took aim at the inscription on the side of the towering figure of King which reads, "I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness." The inscription paraphrases King's famous comments delivered at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1968, two months before he was killed.

What he actually said was, "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."

Angelou told the Washington Post on Tuesday that by omitting the "if," "the quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit." She went on to say, "He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply."

Historians and those who study memorials told ABC News that they felt the King Memorial fairly represents the Civil Rights icon.

"The King quotation is wrong, but in a way, it's not wrong on purpose," said Jim Loewen, author of "Lies Across America: What Our Historic Markers and Monuments Get Wrong." "It's mostly shortened to fit the space. It does make him look like he's sure he's going to be remembered ... but I think he was sure he was going to be remembered so I don't think it's an exactly deliberate misrepresentation."

Loewen said that those behind some of the nation's most famous monuments have done more than just paraphrase a line or two.

"The [Thomas] Jefferson Memorial deliberately misrepresents Jefferson," said Loewen. "On the third panel is a hodgepodge of quotations from different things Jefferson wrote at wildly different periods in his life."

Pulling pieces of Jefferson's quotes from different parts of his life paint an unfair portrait of Jefferson as an abolitionist, Loewen said.

For example, one quote on the memorial to Jefferson reads, "Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free."

The two sentences cobble together two quotes from Jefferson said nearly 30 years apart, both of which, when read in full, reiterate his belief that blacks and whites must live separately and that he is worried about a slave revolt.

"Nobody could possibly put those quotes together without a great deal of forethought, without a conscious attempt to mislead," Loewen said. "I don't think the King quote rises to that level or maybe we should say, sinks to this level."

Along with the quotes, Loewen said the videos at the Jefferson Memorial misrepresent the third president of the United States.

"They have valorizing videos that the Park Service has built into it that make Jefferson the forerunner of space travel," Loewen said. "You don't really learn history at the Jefferson Memorial."

Loewen said the Lincoln Memorial too omits references to slavery in the writing directly behind the statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln. The monument was erected in 1922 in the midst of America's Jim Crow era and when racially motivated lynchings still occurred.

The writing reads, "In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever."

Loewen said the memorial still was able to represent Lincoln fairly.

"The reason that the Lincoln Memorial triumphs above that is because the architect built into the memorial the Gettysburg Address on the one side and the Second Inaugural Address on the other. In both of them, he talked about slavery," Loewen said.

Kirk Savage, author of "Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape," said that the memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, just across from the King Memorial, created its own bit of controversy for its inscriptions.

"With the FDR Memorial, which has a lot of his words on it ... something like 'I hate war' is one of the inscriptions on the memorial. That's from a speech that he gave in the 1930s before the outbreak of World War II, so there was criticism from some people that the inscriptions made him look politically correct ... made him look pacifist," Savage said.

There was also a dispute over whether to depict the disabled Roosevelt in a wheelchair. The statue, opened in 1997, shows Roosevelt seated with his cloak covering the chair.

Savage visited the King Memorial when it was opened last weekend. He said that he was jarred by the same quote that bothered Angelou.

"I did see that inscription, and I did scratch my head a little bit because something sounded wrong about it, it didn't sound like something he said," Savage said.

"The problem is they have presented it as if it is literally his words ... and part of the problem is that they have put his exact words elsewhere, verbatim from his speeches."

The memorial, situated on four acres, has an inscription wall full of 14 of King's quotes. Savage said that they fairly represent King, and he was even surprised that they included King's quote directly opposing the Vietnam War.

"A lot of the inscriptions had to do with peace and his work for peace and his thoughts about peace, and that was really striking because it is a part of the Mall that is dominated by war memorials," Savage said.

"If you're coming from the Vietnam War Memorial and come to the Martin Luther King Memorial, that's going to be really interesting now ... here's this great man, he was opposed to this war," Savage said.

Erika Doss, an American studies professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of "Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America," also visited the King Memorial last weekend and said that the majority of King's quotes were not truncated.

"Memorials are memorials. They're not textbooks, and it would be pretty difficult for any memorial, including this one which has a lot of wall space, to include the finer points of Dr. King's words," said Doss.

Doss said that as she watched people reflecting on the quotes and snapping pictures, strangers began talking to one another.

"There was a real sense of civic or community interaction ... which is a good sign of how the public claim or buy into a memorial space. When they're taking pictures, they're saying, 'Yeah, this is significant to me, I want to put this on my personal website, I want to share with other people, I was here,'" Doss said.

"I think this is one of the most significant memorials to be dedicated on the National Mall. It's hugely significant in that this is a person of color, a significant person in our history who was not a president, who was not a military figure, who was instrumentally important in terms of who we are and how we behave as Americans today," Doss said.