Maya Angelou Upset Over MLK Memorial Inscription


Poet Maya Angelou says the inscription on the newly unveiled Martin Luther King , Jr. Memorial makes the civil rights leader look like an “arrogant twit.”

The official dedication to the memorial was postponed due to Hurricane Irene, but the monument on the National Mall is open to visitors.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Angelou took aim at the inscription 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. 

In February 1968, two months before he was killed, King said, “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 Tuesday that the omission of “if” in the inscription changes the meaning of King’s words.

“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” Angelou told the Washington Post.  “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.”

Angelou is a member of the memorial’s “Dream Team,”  a group of celebrities who donated their resources and time to the memorial’s construction. She was also a personal friend of Dr. King.

“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 told the paper.

Angelou, 83, went on to say that the inscription “minimizes the man.” It is one of 14 quotes carved on the monument.

Emails to the King Center seeking comment about the memorial’s inscription were not returned. 

This isn’t the first controversy surrounding the construction of the memorial.

Lei Yixin, the sculptor chosen to mold King’s figure, is Chinese, not American, and some have taken issue with his depiction of King.

Ed Dwight, a sculptor who worked on the project, said Yixin’s design does not properly portray King’s peaceful nature.

“He totally missed the boat here. Dr. King didn’t look like that. He never wore clothes like that,” Dwight told ABC News last week. “People are upset about his arms folded, the very strong look he has on his face.

“If you flew in here from Mars, you’ll never know what he did, because there’s nothing on the memorial that says what he did — nothing about Selma, nothing about Memphis,” he said. “Maybe rightly so they wanted to use these elevating, high lofty sayings, but I was more concerned about young kids walking in there and not being able to interpret what all that means.”

Because King’s family has copyrighted the civil rights leader’s words and images, the memorial foundation had to pay more than $800,000 in fees to use King’s likeness in the memorial.

The 30-foot-tall monument’s inspiration came from a line in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered 48 years ago on the National Mall during the March on Washington: “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

Visitors can walk to the main memorial through the “Mountain of Despair,” a large rock cut in two. At the center of the memorial stands the “Stone of Hope,” with a statue of King on the far side, overlooking the Tidal Basin. Encircling the monument are marble walls on which 14 of King’s most famous quotes from his speeches, sermons and writings are etched.

But missing from the quotes lining the memorial is his iconic “I Have a Dream” line. The architects say they chose to not include the line since so much of the memorial was already based on the speech, and they wanted to highlight his other celebrated passages.

The memorial was 15 years in the making, beginning with a resolution signed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton to establish a memorial “honoring the life, the dream and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” on the National Mall.

ABC News’ Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.