Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Chiseling away controversy at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

WASHINGTON — On tall scaffolding shrouded with white cloth, a team of Chinese sculptors Monday began to carve, chisel and pound away at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

Tourists wondered what the noise was about, accidental witnesses to an elaborate effort to erase — literally — a controversy that has hung over the monument since its August 2011 unveiling.

When the work is complete in three weeks, at a cost of $700,000 to $900,000, 10 words will no longer exist on one side of the granite: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

The inscription is a paraphrase of what King said in a sermon two months before his assassination and, critics say, is out of context and makes him seem like an egotist — an "arrogant twit" in the words of poet Maya Angelou.

"It's just not what he intended," agreed Kay Marie, 65, a Washington resident who visited the memorial over the weekend. "If you quote someone, you should quote them correctly. This will be here forever."

The uproar began almost immediately after the privately-funded $120 million monument opened, with prominent civil rights figures weighing in, clashing with the artist's vision of simplicity and the consent of high-ranking project officials.

"Generations of Americans are going to learn about this hero by what they see when they visit his monument," read an editorial in the Washington Post, which helped elevate the issue. "It is not too much to ask that what they learn be right."

In early 2012, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the quote would be changed. Later it was decided just to remove it.

"I've been racking my brain to come up with a comparable case and I really can't," said Kirk Savage, an art history professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies monuments. He said there are times when words or names are added but not taken away wholesale.

King gave the sermon on Feb. 4, 1968, at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, warning against a self-important "drum major" mentality. If he were to die, King said he should be remembered for goodness, not showy acts or awards.

"If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice," he said at the end of a nearly 20-minute address. "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 original design called for the full quote, but sculptor Lei Yixin thought it was too long, contrasting with a similarly short inscription on the other side that reads, "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope," a line from King's I Have a Dream speech.

The project architect and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which oversaw the design, signed off on the truncated version, said Carol Johnson, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service.

Even as work has begun to fix it, public opinion is mixed.

"People sometimes have a tendency to latch onto something and lose sight of the larger message," Kim Lubin, 58, who lives near Seattle, said while gazing at King on Monday. "I love the memorial, and I'm glad it's here. That's what's important."

Angela Parks, 48, of Bowie, Md., said: "People overreacted. I think it's more of the older generation of the civil rights movement that have a problem. My generation, we didn't have a problem with it."

The King memorial, 28 feet, 6 inches high, has come under criticism for the stern expression on his face and his crossed arms. In April 2008, the Commission of Fine Arts protested that "the colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed statue recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries."

There were gripes about "outsourcing" the job to China, to a sculptor who has also made a statute of communist leader Mao Tse-tung.

Federal officials are eager to move past the inscription debate with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington coming Aug. 28.

Options included using the full quote or changing "I" to "He," but Lei will carve out the words and leave in place a series of striations that create the visual that the monument — the Stone of Hope — was pulled from another heap of granite at the site, called the Mountain of Despair.

King's family preferred the full "drum major" quote but blessed the change, which Lei said would protect the structural integrity.

He was on site Monday, a camera hung around his neck as four fellow Chinese workers pulled out power tools and hammers.

A park ranger informed tourists of what was happening and many shrugged and kept taking pictures. Though a fence sits around the site, King is visible.

"It's a ton of cash but history is forever," Mark Moses, 54 of Charlotte, N.C., said of the repair job, paid for by a maintenance fund. "If they're making a wrong right, then more power to them."

Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.

Chiseling away controversy at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial 07/29/13 [Last modified: Monday, July 29, 2013 10:32pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Advocates for charter, public schools argue their cases at education forum

    K12

    TAMPA — Advocates of charter schools argued for diversity in education while supporters of traditional public schools charged that state funding is stacked against them during a forum Friday titled, Choices in Education.

    Schools such as Winthrop Charter School deserve greater public support, their operators say, because they offer a choice in education that is popular among parents. Public school advocates say charter and voucher schools represent a double standard in accountability and enrollment. [WILL VRAGOVIC  |  Times]
  2. Editorial: UF shows how to preserve free speech

    Editorials

    The University of Florida was forced to navigate a treacherous terrain of constitutional concerns and public safety this week, all in a glaring public spotlight. In the end, Thursday's appearance by Richard Spencer was a success — as much as an unwelcome visit from a notorious white nationalist can be. The …

  3. Blake High grad Taylor Trensch lands lead role in 'Dear Evan Hansen' on Broadway

    Stage

    For those who saw Taylor Trensch grow up in Tampa, his rise from promising student to star is heartwarming and entirely predictable. In January, Trensch, 28, will be moving into the title role of Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway, one of the hottest tickets in theater.

    Taylor Trensch, a 2007 Blake High graduate, will play the title role in Broadway's Dear Evan Hansen. Courtesy of Frank Trensch.
  4. Editorial: When protest leads to understanding

    Editorials

    The protests against racial injustice by professional athletes across the country include examples of communities where it has not been handled well. And then there is the example set in Tampa Bay.

  5. Why it's too early to give up on the Bucs

    Bucs

    Don't panic. It's not too late for the Bucs.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) and wide receiver Mike Evans (13) celebrate after the defense recovered a fumble during the second half of an NFL game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times