Does Memorial Quote Make Martin Luther King Jr. Seem like an 'Arrogant Twit?'

By riter, Brad Knickerbocker | The Christian Science Monitor, September 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Does Memorial Quote Make Martin Luther King Jr. Seem like an 'Arrogant Twit?'


riter, Brad Knickerbocker, The Christian Science Monitor


Poet Maya Angelou says a truncated quote on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial makes the civil rights icon seem like an 'arrogant twit.' Public art is always controversial, and this is no exception.

Public art is inevitably controversial, especially if it's political. Think of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial created in 1982. Called "a black gash of earth" by its critics, it's now the most- visited site in Washington.

The same is true of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, a tribute to the preeminent icon of civil rights - a political issue if ever there was one.

Just ask poet and author Maya Angelou.

Ms. Angelou, herself a civil rights activist and a literary icon with 30-plus honorary degrees and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, says the new memorial - at least one engraved quote prominently attributed to Dr. King - makes him look like "an arrogant twit."

Influential poets, it seems, would rather you keep your hands off the verbiage - especially words from one known for his stirring, historic rhetoric.

Angelou is dismayed at a design change that meant truncating something King had said to the congregation at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta two months before he was assassinated in 1968 into a sound bite so it could fit a particular space on the granite memorial.

You be the judge.

Full quote: "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. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind."

As engraved: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

It was the editorial excision of that small but mighty "if" that did it for Angelou.

"The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit," she told the Washington Post.

"He had no arrogance at all. He had a humility that comes from deep inside," she said. "The 'if' clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely."

The paraphrase "minimizes the man," she said. …

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