Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery/Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

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The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, on the National Mall, has had a rough time of it. Before the monument to the Civil Rights-era leader even opened, it was derided for having a socialist-realist style and a sculptor best known for his busts of Chairman Mao. It also emerged that the foundation overseeing the project had reneged on promises to employ the sort of union laborers King supported; much of the construction was done by Chinese workers laboring under questionable conditions. Oh, and the opening ceremony was rained out.

The bulk of the abuse, though, focused on the quotation chiseled into the memorial’s “Stone of Hope,” which managed to condense a meditation on humility into a boast: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” Maya Angelou said the truncated quote made King sound like a “twit,” while the New Yorker’s Hendrik Herzberg found the passage “megalomaniacal.” The Washington Post editorial board soon called for the entire passage to be redone. Plans to do so—at an estimated cost of $150,000 to $600,000—were announced in February.

How could such an important memorial have gone off course? Much of the blame has been assigned to the project’s well-intentioned architect, Ed Jackson Jr., who shortened the full quote to save space. But a look back at the early history of the memorial points to another pair of well-intentioned culprits who struck before the first stone had even been laid. It turns out that the federal agencies responsible for vetting additions to the Mall can be as persnickety about punctuation as they are about architecture. The authorities had a problem with ellipses—the three little dots that might have changed everything.

On Feb. 1, 2007, in the early days of planning the memorial, Jackson submitted a list of 16 quotes to the National Park Service and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, both of which vet national monuments. Of the 16 quotes Jackson and a small “Council of Historians” selected, eight had removed words, combined phrases from separate passages, or both. There were ellipses everywhere.

That was a problem. “The public is well aware of the actual quotations and does not accept the notion of editorial revision,” wrote NPS Associate Regional Director for Lands, Resources, and Planning John Parsons in a Feb. 6 letter to CFA Director Tom Luebke. “We are very concerned about the proposed inscriptions that have been created out of context through the use of ellipses or by combining quotations from more than one source.” Parsons sent Luebke a list of offending quotes, hoping the commission would have them replaced: For D.C.-based monuments, the CFA has final say on quotes.

Those pesky ellipses were the first item of discussion when the commission, a presidentially-appointed group of artists and design experts, met with the King Foundation just over a week later. According to the meeting’s minutes, Jackson explained that he had used ellipses mostly to delete references to specific places—Vietnam and Montgomery, Ala., for example—to keep the monument “universal.” University of Michigan Professor Emeritus of Architecture James Chaffers, a member of the foundation’s Council of Historians, said the emphasis “should be on how Dr. King’s values could influence our daily lives and character, rather than emphasizing his own times.”

CFA Commissioner Pamela Nelson, a Dallas painter, objected. “I understand your wanting to be universal,” she said. “But he was specific in time and place.”

At the end of the meeting, the CFA told Jackson to eliminate ellipses and restore all the full quotes. Commissioner Witold Rybczynski, Slate’s architecture critic until this year, “specifically urged that the full quotation from Dr. King about being called a ‘drum major’ be used,” the minutes read.

The drum major line, in fact, was among the least altered of the quotes Jackson proposed—which may explain why the Park Service didn’t cite it in its initial letter. Jackson had merely removed the first line of the passage: “Yes, if you want to say that I am a drum major.” A visual mock-up showed the quote opening with an ellipsis to indicate the deleted portion. But the text as submitted didn’t include the punctuation. “Say that I am a drum major for justice,” it began.

That sounds rather different, doesn’t it?

Three years later, in October 2010, Jackson presented the CFA with his final selections, without partial quotes or ellipses. The drum major quote would appear in full. But in summer 2011, when engraver Nick Benson raised concerns about the smaller font necessary to fit the full quote, there was another reversal: Jackson decided to simply paraphrase it. The Park Service’s Peter May, who took over as associate regional director following Parsons’ retirement, told me this was an unprecedented betrayal. Hence the torrent of blame.

But what if the NPS and the CFA had never objected to partial quotes in the first place? The memorial may have featured some awkward ellipses, but the drum major quote would likely not look quite so twit-ish.

So why veto the punctuation? People involved in the decision offer two explanations: Artistic and historical. “There is a tradition in a memorial that you don’t use ellipses, you don’t use brackets, you don’t use exclamation points, you don’t use italics,” says Rybczynski, who explains that his view had “nothing to do with the sense of the quote.”

The sense of the quote, though, was what concerned Sally Blumenthal, a longtime Park Service official before her retirement. “It is just something that has become practice over the past 25 or 30 years.”

Ellipsis foes have a good cautionary example to explain their position: the Jefferson Memorial.

In the early discussions about the memorial, Blumenthal alluded to the monument, a jumble of compressed quotations that elide over 18th-century racial views in ways that ill serve both history and aesthetics. One lengthy excerpt, supposedly from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia contains the following passage: “Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” Not noted: the second sentence actually comes from Jefferson’s autobiography, in which it is followed by a line that somehow didn’t make the memorial: “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.”

Likewise, the Jefferson Memorial’s excerpt from the Declaration of Independence includes numerous ellipses, several of which slide over states-rights language that might have offended the Franklin Delano Roosevelt-era pols who vetted the monument.

That would explain the longstanding no-ellipsis practice, but for one problem: There is no such practice.

Five of the 21 quotes approved for the FDR Memorial in 1992 contain ellipses. According to the CFA’s minutes, the commissioners specifically recommended that quotes be shortened to accommodate distractible tourists. “It was thought that visitors who were occupied with viewing sculptures and fountains would not take the time to read a great amount of text on the walls,” the minutes read.

And five of the World War II Memorial’s ten quotes, approved in 2002, use ellipses, including the excerpt from Roosevelt’s famous Pearl Harbor radio address. In direct contrast to the proceedings of the King process, the CFA had no problem omitting the names of places and events, including the deletion of all references to Nazis and Germans.

Why the change of heart? The only CFA commissioner who presided over both the WWII and MLK Memorials was Nelson, the Dallas painter. When approving the WWII quotes, Nelson told me, she wasn’t concerned that visitors would be “learning about history. That’s more for books and museums.” Since then, she says she may have been influenced by criticism the memorial received over the elided quotes. For his part, Rybczynski says that the CFA used to have more commissioners from outside the art world who might not have been disturbed by unsightly ellipses.

Whatever the reason for the sudden no-ellipses turn, it may not have been worth it. For the trouble of a few dots here and there, the NPS could have avoided the embarrassment, and cost, of replacing one of its inscriptions. If nothing else, couldn’t it have just recommended an asterisk? Are those allowed?