WASHINGTON — The National Park Service announced plans Friday to remove an inscription from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and replace it with a full quotation from the civil rights leader – a move the memorial project's architect said would "destroy" the monument.
Critics including the poet Maya Angelou, had said the paraphrase didn't accurately reflect King's words. It reads, "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."
Angelou had said the shortened phrase made King sound like an "arrogant twit." She had served on a panel of historians to select inscriptions for the memorial before they were hand-carved into stone, but she did not attend meetings about the inscriptions, memorial officials have said.
Fixing it will likely involve cutting into the monument several inches around the inscription to remove a block of granite and replacing it with another piece for engraving. Officials said it's unclear how much the work may cost. The park service may seek private donations to fund the project.
Removing the inscription now will amount to "defacing" the memorial or "scarring it for life" because any new granite added to the memorial would be a noticeably different color, said Ed Jackson Jr., the executive architect of the $120 million memorial project.
"There is no way you can match the existing stone and color," he said. "It will continue to age differently, even if you went to the same quarry."
He compared it to the Washington Monument, which has a visible line where the color of the white stone changes because construction of the memorial was halted for years during the Civil War.
Jackson said he proposed adding words to the beginning of the existing inscription to place it in the context of King's 1968 sermon known as the "Drum Major Instinct," in which King discussed how he would like to be remembered about two months before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.
But in the past 10 days, Jackson said federal officials had decided on a different plan without any further discussion.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the plan Friday to remove the inscription entirely and replace it with the full quotation, which seems more modest.
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."
In a statement, Salazar said the change was necessary for the memorial.
"With a monument so powerful and timeless, it is especially important that all aspects of its words, design and meaning stay true to Dr. King's life and legacy," he said.
Park service officials consulted with stone masons and with the King family in making the decision, said Carol Johnson, a spokeswoman for the National Mall and Memorial Parks. King's daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, and his sister, Christine King Farris, met with Salazar and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.
Bernice King thanked officials for consulting with the family in a statement released by the park service and said the "proposed correction" was the right decision.
Jackson, the architect who oversaw the memorial's development for years, said he hopes the matter will be sent back to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts for a fuller discussion on how to preserve the memorial's granite in one piece.
"The expertise that is required to even consider this has not been brought to the table," he said. "I think people are speculating what they can and cannot do."
Asked whether there could be any way to remove the inscription, Jackson said, "without destroying it, no."