Drum Major Instinct – Dr. Martin Luther King
It’s mind boggling to think 47 years have passed.
I was a happy, optimistic, idealistic freshman starting high school the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. His beautiful words inspired me to write. His pulse pounding tone, heart racing pace, and poetic prose inspired me to speak. Although I never met him, he helped shape the person I am.
To celebrate his birthday, I reprint this excerpt from a speech he delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on February 4, 1968. His words ring as true today as when he preached them 47 years ago.
The Drum Major Instinct
We are drifting because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.” “I must be supreme.” “Our nation must rule the world.” And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.
God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.
But God has a way of even putting nations in their place. The God that I worship has a way of saying, “Don’t play with me.” He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, “Don’t play with me, Israel. Don’t play with me, Babylon. Be still and know that I’m God. And if you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power.” And that can happen to America.
Every now and then I go back and read Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening. And we have perverted the drum major instinct.
When James and John asked what they could do to sit on his right and on his left, Jesus said, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.”
But he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”
He transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, “Now brethren, I can’t give you greatness. And really, I can’t make you first. You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared.”
He gave us a new norm of greatness.
If you want to be important, wonderful.
If you want to be recognized, wonderful.
If you want to be great, wonderful.
But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. The thing I like about it is by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.
You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve.
You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.
You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve.
You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.
You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.
And you can be that servant.
This morning, you can be on his right hand and his left hand if you serve.
It’s the only way in.
Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator, that something we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself,
“What is it that I would want said?”
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize, that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards, that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others.
I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
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. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King!
May we see your dream realized in my lifetime.