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.