Controversy Over King Memorial Inscription Isn't the First

VIDEO: Poet says inscription makes civil rights leader sound like "an arrogant twit."

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.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...