Work underway to remove quote from Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Earlene Purches of Flint, Mich., takes a photograph of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Monday. Work to remove a paraphrased quote from the memorial has begun and is expected to last three to four weeks.

A chain-link fence and yellow caution tape marked the start Monday of a major change planned for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.


Scattered tour groups and visitors sweating under a hot sun had to maneuver around a line of fencing placed at the "Mountain of Despair" and "Stone of Hope," as officials prepare to remove the controversial "drum major" inscription from the side of the monument.

The project is expected to last for three to four weeks and wrap up before events to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Aug. 28.

Wandering along the northern inscription wall, 48-year-old Alex Baker said he could sympathize with both sides of the quotation argument.

"I understand doing it makes it look nice, but I understand those who feel it's not a fair statement," said Mr. Baker, a transportation specialist from Bowie.

The quote etched into one side of the enormous boulder reads: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." The other side of the memorial — which includes a towering figure of King emerging from the stone — features the line "Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope."

The memorial's organizing foundation, which raised the money to pay for its construction, said it chose the shortened quote for the symmetry of two lines of text on either side of the massive sculpture.

The full version of King's "drum major" quote 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."

Though much longer than the paraphrased quote, Rochester, N.Y., resident Brent Gilbert said it was important not to separate King's words for the sake of symmetry.

Pausing during his first visit to the memorial, Mr. Gilbert, 40, said, "You lose too much in the interpretation if you paraphrase, rather than take the words directly from the man himself."

Standing at the foot of the King sculpture, Robby and Gay Bellamy from San Antonio smiled for a family photo before sharing their thoughts on the shortened saying.

"I think the abbreviated statement is not better than saying the whole version," said Mr. Bellamy, 59.

Mrs. Bellamy, 57, said it was important to keep all of the words in the King quote because "this is his memorial."

"The real quote makes you feel like you're hearing it directly from him," she said. "You get a sense of who he is."

Lei Yixin, the Chinese sculptor who crafted the memorial by the Tidal Basin, recommended the controversial quote be removed rather than replaced in order to ensure the memorial's structural integrity. The memorial will remain open through the duration of the work, although access to some areas will be affected.

National Park Service officials initially hoped to complete the work earlier this year, prior to the start of the summer tourist season, but scheduling issues pushed the timeline back.

Critics of the paraphrased quote called on the Park Service and memorial foundation to fix or remove the inscription for more than a year, but officials said the coordination of six sculptors' schedules as well as that of contractors proved to be the biggest hurdle.

Mr. Lei, who is expected to arrive in the District the week of July 29, will remove the quote by carving a series of ridges and linear marks atop the quotation.

National Park Service officials said the fix is expected to cost about $700,000 and is being paid for through a maintenance fund supplied by private donations specifically for commemorative works on the Mall.



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