Martin Luther King quote makes him look a twit, says Maya Angelou

  • @dusborne

Things carved in stone tend to stay that way forever, but that doesn't concern the poet Maya Angelou, who thinks a quotation attributed to Martin Luther King Jr that appears on a newly unveiled memorial in Washington should be changed because it makes him sound like a "twit".

In tones that are as solemn as the lines from her many popular poems – and as the voice she adopts when reciting them – Angelou is denouncing the designers of the memorial to the civil rights leader for including on its north side the words: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness", saying they have been taken out of context.

Indeed, the quotation paraphrases a passage from a sermon given by Dr King in an Atlanta church shortly before his assassination. Eerily, he was speculating what a eulogy to him might say in the event of his dying. "Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice," he told the congregation that day. "Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness."

The 30ft sculpture showing Dr King emerging from a block of stone with crossed arms was unveiled on the National Mall in Washington last week within sight of the statues of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.

Originally planned for Sunday, its dedication, which will include the interment of a time capsule containing a poem about him written by Angelou, was delayed by Hurricane Irene. It will now take place later this autumn.

By choosing not to inscribe the full quotation, the designers have done Dr King a disservice, the 83-year-old poet complained to the Washington Post. The inscription makes him "look like an arrogant twit," she said.

"He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply. 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."

Angelou was an advisory board member when the sculpture was being conceived, but she did not attend meetings to discuss the inscriptions. It is not clear therefore that her belated complaints won't provoke some to call her a twit.

"If there's any comment about anything, it's late," noted the teacher and artist Jon Onye Lockard, who was also an adviser.

He mentioned no names but went on: "I think it's rather small of folks to pick at things. This has been going on for 14 years, and all of them have had plenty of time to add their thoughts and ideas."