American Graffiti

It’s been a tough week for D.C.’s historic landmarks.

Beginning on Friday, a vandal armed with green paint splashed a path through the District, defacing monuments, statues, and churches along the way.

I was in San Francisco when I heard the news that paint had been thrown onto the statue at the Lincoln Memorial.

Pretty shocking stuff, but it turned out to not be an isolated incident. Over the weekend there was a steady drip of similar news from D.C.:

Green paint on a statue of Martin Luther and inside the historic Luther Place Memorial Church at Thomas Circle…

Green paint on a statue of Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian, outside the iconic Castle building…

And finally on Monday, green paint inside the National Cathedral, where a pipe organ and two chapels were splashed – one of which served as President Woodrow Wilson’s initial burial site.

The Lincoln Memorial undergoing cleaning to remove green paint.
The Lincoln Memorial undergoing cleaning to remove green paint.

It was there that the vandal, a Chinese woman on an expired tourist visa, was caught green-handed – literally.

Now all four landmarks are undergoing extensive cleaning. It’s particularly tough for the National Cathedral, which is still raising money for restoration after the 2011 earthquake.

While this kind of damage to our national landmarks is rare, it’s not unheard of.

The Lincoln Memorial was hit once before, painted with a racial epithet in 1962 – the 100 year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. And the Washington Post has this short history of other monumental vandalism in the District.

This week another Martin Luther statue was also being defaced – but this time on purpose.

On the Tidal Basin, stone cutters are chipping away at the side of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial to remove a misquote that caused a furor when the statue was unveiled in 2011.

It’s a paraphrase of King’s famous “Drum Major” sermon, which he delivered in his Atlanta church just two months before his assassination in 1968.

MLK Statue - Drum Major Quote
A drum-major misquote.

Many people (including me) thought that the current quote, “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness,” sounded arrogant and out of character. It’s taken out of context from the fuller speech, which captures King’s humility:

“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.”

After much debate, the Department of the Interior brokered a deal to erase the offending paraphrase rather than try to inscribe the whole quote.

The statue’s Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin was even brought back to Washington to oversee the work, replacing the words with striations that will blend in with other parts of the memorial.

(Ironically, it seems like the artist and master sculptor might have had trouble getting into the U.S. to fix the statue, which didn’t seem to be a problem for the green paint vandal with a tourist visa.)

This sanctioned bit of vandalism should be finished by the end of August, in time for the 50th anniversary of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech and the March on Washington.

A less famous line from that speech, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” appears on the other side of King’s statue.

As the clean-up continues, that pretty much sums up the feelings of tourists and locals alike about our marred monuments.

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