Image: King Memorial
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
An inscription is seen Aug. 22 on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington. Poet and author Maya Angelou is taking issue with a paraphrased quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. inscribed in his new memorial in Washington, saying the shortened version makes the civil rights is taken out of context.
updated 8/31/2011 4:37:43 PM ET 2011-08-31T20:37:43

Poet and author Maya Angelou is taking issue with a paraphrased quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. inscribed in his new memorial in Washington, saying the shortened version makes the civil rights leader sound like an "arrogant twit" because it's out of context.

The words were from a sermon King delivered Feb. 4, 1968, at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, two months before he was assassinated, about a eulogy that could be given when he died.

King said, "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."

On Tuesday, Angelou, who consulted on the memorial, told The Washington Post that the shortened version of those words sounds egotistical and should be changed.

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It reads: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

'It makes him seem an egotist'
The phrase is inscribed on a statue of King without quotation marks because it is paraphrased. It is not grouped with 14 quotations from King that are part of the memorial plaza.

The paraphrased version "minimizes the man," said the 83-year-old Angelou. "It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was. ... It makes him seem an egotist."

Dedication of King Memorial postponed

King would have never said of himself that he was a drum major, Angelou said, but rather that others might say that of him.

"He had a humility that comes from deep inside," Angelou told the Post. "The 'if' clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely."

Not enough room
Memorial planners said they were fond of the quotation but that it had to be shortened because of a change during the King statute's creation. They originally planned to use most of the "drum major" quote but changed its placement, and sculptor Lei Yixin told them there wasn't enough space.

Slideshow: Martin Luther King Jr. (on this page)

"We sincerely felt passionate that the man's own eulogy should be expressed on the stone," said Ed Jackson Jr., executive architect of the memorial. "We said the least we could do was define who he was based on his perception of himself: 'I was a drum major for this, this and this.'"

Project planners outlined the problem and their proposed solution to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which had to approve the memorial's design. The federal arts panel did not object, Jackson said.

Story: Martin Luther King Jr. memorial opens in DC

Angelou was one of the memorial's Council of Historians tasked with selecting the inscriptions for the memorial. But she did not attend meetings about the inscriptions, Jackson said.

Two other memorial advisers were consulted, Jon Onye Lockard and James Chaffers of the University of Michigan. But Jackson said he ultimately had to make the decision.

Lockard told the Post he was fine with the shortened inscription.

"If there's any comment about anything, it's late," he said, noting others also have recently criticized pieces of the memorial. "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."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: MLK Memorial

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  1. Daryl Cagle / MSNBC.com, Politicalcartoons.com
    Above: Slideshow (4) MLK Memorial
  2. Image: Dr. Martin Luther King
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    Slideshow (13) Martin Luther King Jr.

Video: Storm delays MLK memorial dedication

  1. Closed captioning of: Storm delays MLK memorial dedication

    >>> nbc's tom costello is in washington, d.c. events there being canceled. the washington monument behind you, tom. good morning. it's not just the populous district but, of course, the coastal regions, as well.

    >> yeah, we're in for at least a tropical storm . so this area under a tropical storm watch but further to the east on the maryland shore they're looking at a hurricane. as you mentioned we've already seen one major postponement because of this activity. it's a disappointing one. the martin luther king memorial dedication planned for sunday has been postponed indefinitely. we're looking at either september or october. it was to be opening and will open today for people to come visit, but the dedication on sunday which was going to attract a quarter million people, has been postponed. let's talk about annapolis maryland , preparing there. already started talking about sandbagging where necessary. that's the home of the naval academy . the governors of maryland , virginia, delaware have all declared states of emergency already. that allows them to call out the national guard if in addition. in ocean city , maryland , way out to the east on the coast, the mayor has ordered a mandatory total evacuation. they hope that that will be finished by 5:00 tonight. they're talking about 150,000 people there. officials in dell care have also ordered evacuations of dewey beach and bethany beach . the university of delaware has postponed move-in for new students. in virginia, evacuations ordered at sand bridge beach area, also in low-lying areas. the navy has already taken action, ordering the fleet out to sea in norfolk, of course, the most effected area, 33 ships taking off to sea. surface ships and four submarines all leaving the dock there. amtrak has canceled all service south of d.c. that starts today. that runs through sunday. meanwhile, the major airlines also canceling service to and from epthed cities. that is expected over the weekend but immediately they are waving the change fees, if you are going to be coming into or out of one of those effected cities. so you can start making those calls now. back here in d.c. , the city has -- annapolis has also begun handing out sandbags. that's right across the potomac river . alexandria is preparing as well. and they're watching the washington monument closely because they found those cracks a at the top of the monument immediately after the earthquake on sunday. some sunlight even coming through the cracks. this remains off limits to the public. david and ann, back to you.

    >> tom costello, thank you in

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