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MLK sculpture changes stalled ahead of March on Washington's 50th anniversary

MLK memorial: Will changes be ready for 50th anniversary? 02:57

(CBS News) Fifty years ago, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told the world "I have a dream." The anniversary of the March on Washington is coming up this month, but repair work on King's memorial may not be finished in time. The reason: a problem with the contractor's insurance.

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The problem with the statue stems from an inscription on the side of the statue that does not use King's exact words, and critics say it casts him in a bad light.

Almost two years after opening to the public, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is hidden by scaffolding and fenced off, as workers try to finish removing the contentious line. Carved into the side of 30-feet high granite likeness of King, it was a reference to the last sermon he ever made called the "Drum Major Instinct."

King said in that sermon, "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."

King's words were shortened to "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness" so they would fit on the memorial.

The poet Maya Angelou said the line made King sound like an "arrogant twit."

King's son and the Washington Post's Rachel Manteuffel, who discovered the discrepancy, also raised objections. Manteuffel explained, "The entire meaning of the quote seemed to be turned on its head, because he's saying -- all right, if you want to say something sort of disparaging about me, that I sought all this attention, at least, say that I sought this attention for good reasons."

The National Park Service eventually agreed to remove it, and in July, the memorial's sculptor Lei Yixin was flown in from China to chisel the line out of the stone, but that raised complications, according to his son. Ke Shi said recently, "We replaced the old inscription with some moving lines or striations. The new striations are deeper and (have) a darker color."

The final phase of the work requires sandblasting, but the kind of artificial sand the artist wanted to use was not covered by the contractor's insurance. Instead, they used ground up walnut shells, which left stains that also had to be chiseled out.

The snags have now cast doubt on plans to have the memorial ready for the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march on Washington at the end of this month.

Manteuffel said, "If I were a tourist now, I would be disappointed, but I am so glad they are taking the trouble to get it right."

The National Park Service has told CBS News they believe they can get the repairs done in time by using their own team of experts instead of the outside contractor, but if they don't get it done in time, they'll have to take down all of the scaffolding and fencing away for the celebration and then put it all back afterward to finish the job.

Watch Chip Reid's full report above.

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