City Desk

So The MLK Memorial Isn’t Perfect—At Least He’s Not A Mass Murderer

Why Did These Memorials Get Built Before MLK's?

Count poet Maya Angelou as one more person who’s not jazzed about the misleading shortening of a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote chiseled into the brand new memorial that saw a soggy opening last weekend during Hurricane Irene:

Carved on the north face of the 30-foot-tall granite statue, the inscription reads: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.

“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” Angelou, 83, said Tuesday. “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,” she said. “He had a humility that comes from deep inside. The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”

The full quote—which sculptor Lei Yixin said wouldn’t fit—was, “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.”

The truncated version is just one more piece of kindling for critics of the memorial. Interested parties have been up in arms over the choice of a Chinese sculptor, Chinese granite, foreign workers who didn’t know how much money they would make, and the rather severe facial expression of the man himself.

But on the bright side, at least the subject of the statue can go without reproach—which is something we can’t say for a number of other memorials in the D.C. area. Here are five of the more dubious monuments, which somehow managed to be created and dedicated before the civil rights leader got his due recognition:

  • Andrew Jackson, the seventh president. Jackson holds position on a statue near the White House. The monument is one of four identical pieces in different parts of the country, commemorating Jackson as a general. A general who, in the name of preserving the union, conquered Florida by mass-murdering African American militiamen and their Seminole and Chocktaw allies.
  • Roger Taney, the Supreme Court justice. Taney has two statues: one in Annapolis and one in Frederick, Md. He wrote the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision—you know, the ruling that made it clear blacks were not citizens of the United States. He also wrote the decision that left slave-holding up to the states.
  • Queen Isabella of Spain. Hanging out in front of the Organization of American States is a representation of the Spanish queen, who gave Christopher Columbus the money that would support him as he governed Hispaniola with a barbaric fist. (She also supported expelling all Jews who wouldn’t convert to Christianity from Spain, and just for good measure, fought a war with Portugal.)
  • Sonny Bono. Okay, so maybe Bono isn't on the level of the others when it comes to crimes against humanity, but it’s still strange that the departed congressman has a plaque and a tiny triangle of a park in Dupont Circle. Yes, the beat goes on, but perhaps on the West Coast?
  • Don Quixote. Cervantes' creation sits atop his horse Rocinante (sans Sancho Panza, alas) near the Kennedy Center. We have no real bone to pick with the man of La Mancha...except for the fact that he doesn’t exist.

Photo by ktylerconk via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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  • Rick Rosendall

    I agree with Maya Angelou, and I am not a big fan of socialist realism in commemorative sculpture. But I'm sure we'll get used to this sculpture just as we're used to the pose Lincoln is in. These quibbles certainly pale beside the fact that a monster like Andrew Jackson has a statue, especially in such a prominent place. Send him to a warehouse.

  • Joel MG

    I went to Andrew Jackson Middle School so it doesn't shock me that he has a statue. They should really fix that quote though. If the intentions were to keep it short then they should have just used an exert from "I have a dream." It's only his most famous speech and all...

  • pasha

    Why isn't there a monument to portuguese sailors who saved thousands of african captives from ritual killings during the tribal wars ? The captives were saved to become slaves, but that was insisted on by the tribal chiefs. The alternative was death.

  • Julie F.

    Thank you for this informative and witty article about the new MLK memorial. I especially love your comparisons to other controversial statues in DC!

    It's easy to criticize the decisions of others retrospectively. Yet, those who worked for decades to make this memorial a reality deserve our humble gratitude. Let's take this opportunity to celebrate the spirit and beauty of this space.

  • Typical DC BS

    To the morons who don't understand that things were very different 150 years ago - Andrew Jackson was doing what was expected at the time. Expecting people in the past to behave according to today's morals and ethics is ridiculous. Advocating for his statue's removal just reveals your politically correct stupidity.

  • Jerry A. McCoy

    Might be added the statue of Confederate Brigadier General Albert Pike at Judiciary Square?