WASHINGTON -- On tall scaffolding shrouded with white cloth, a team of Chinese sculptors on 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 Dr. 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 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.”