Preliminary Work Begins to Remove Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Quote - NBC Chicago
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Preliminary Work Begins to Remove Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Quote

Removal expected to be complete by 50th anniversary of the March on Washington



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    Preliminary work to remove a disputed quote from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial will soon get underway, the National Park Service said Friday.

    Beginning Monday, the site will be prepped for repairs, with scaffolding going up. Sculptor Master Lei Yixin appeared at the site Monday, taking measurements and pausing to pose for photographs for tourists.

    He is expected to begin his work next week, carving horizontal grooves over the lettering to match existing marks in the sculpture.

    Many people, including poet Maya Angelou, complained after the memorial opened in 2011 that the paraphrased quotation took King's words out of context, making him sound arrogant.

    The paraphrase on the monument reads: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

    The full quotation was taken from a 1968 sermon about two months before King was assassinated. It reads:

    "Yes, 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 said the paraphrase "makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit," the Washington Post reported in August 2011. "He was anything but that.... He had no arrogance at all. 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."

    The words were taken from a sermon that King delivered at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church two months before he was assassinated. He was speaking about what he would want in his own eulogy.

    The quote was paraphrased so that it would fit on the north side of the statue, but many visitors Monday agreed with the belief that the words distort King's message.

    "The quote was inaccurate to begin with," said one visitor. "Of course, when you think about the history of, and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, it was never about him. He never brought attention to himself."

    "That [paraphrase] makes him almost kind of seem pretentious in a way, and anybody knows that's not how he was," said another.

    In December, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he reached an agreement with King's family, the group that built the memorial and the National Park Service to remove the paraphrase from King's "Drum Major" speech.

    Ed Jackson Jr., the memorial's executive architect, told the Associated Press that the lettering will be replaced with horizontal "movement lines" that are already part of the design to show the movement of the central Stone of Hope out of a Mountain of Despair behind it.

    "So what they're going to do is make more of those striations where the words are, and then they're also going to make striations on the other side... so it all matches up," said Carol Johnson of the NPS.

    The sculptor, Lei, had recommended removing the inscription that way to avoid compromising the monument's structural integrity, rather than cutting into the granite to replace it with a fuller quotation.

    Cutting granite out of the sculpture and replacing it to make way for a longer quotation would have also looked like a "patch job" forever, Jackson said.

    Removing the inscription retains the integrity of the artwork, he said.

    That design was inspired by a line from King's "I Have a Dream" speech: "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope." That message is inscribed on the other side of the sculpture and will remain.

    The work is expected to be finished before the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this Aug. 28, according to the NPS. The memorial will remain open during the work, though access to some areas will be affected.

    Although change is coming, for Anna Carter, the memorial will continue to be a place of inspiration.

    "I walked from the Pentagon over here, and just coming, I could see it on my way, and it just touched my heart," she said.