A controversial quote on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. will be removed and not replaced, the Department of the Interior said Dec. 11.
Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement that, after consultation with “a range of stakeholders,” the department decided against its original plan to replace the quote.
Under the advice of the memorial’s original sculptor, Master Lei Yixin, the agency decided removal was “the safest way to ensure the structural integrity of the memorial was not compromised.”
“The memorial stands as a testament to Dr. King’s struggle for civil rights, and a dream of dignity, respect and justice for all,” Salazar said. “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.”
The quote in question is inscribed on the side of the 30-foot statue of Dr. King, and was taken from a 1968 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which is referred to as his “Drum Major” speech. In the well-known monologue, 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."
But the inscription on the memorial is an abbreviation and a paraphrase of the original text and reads, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."
Controversy first erupted in 2011 when acclaimed Black poet Maya Angelou said the extrapolated text—without the original “if”—made King sound arrogant and changed the meaning of the line.
Members of Dr. King’s family expressed their support for the department’s plan.
“While our family would have, of course, preferred to have the entire ‘Drum Major’ quote used, we fully endorse and support the secretary’s proposal,” Dr. Christine King Farris, Dr. King’s sister, said in the statement.
Bernice A. King, Dr. King’s youngest daughter and CEO of the King Center in Atlanta, seconded the endorsement.
“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,” she said.
The Department of the Interior’s plan to remove the quote will be submitted to the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission in January for their review. According to the National Park Service, if the plan is approved, removal will begin in February and should be completed by spring. The memorial will remain open to the public during that time.
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