As this month begins to come to a close, I want to reflect on a speech that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered February 4, 1968 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia about the so-called “drum major instinct.” His ironic pronouncement occurred two months before being assassinated. King’s sermon was an adaptation of the 1952 homily ‘‘Drum-Major Instincts’’ by J. Wallace Hamilton, a well-known, liberal, white Methodist preacher. Both men tell the biblical story of James and John, who ask Jesus for the most prominent seats in heaven.
At the core of their desire was a ‘‘drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade.’’ King warns his congregation that this desire for importance can lead to ‘‘snobbish exclusivism’’ and ‘‘tragic race prejudice.’’ For example, some people need to feel superior … and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first. King preached that when Jesus responded to the request by James and John, he did not rebuke them for their ambition, but taught that greatness comes from humble servitude. As King put it, Jesus ‘‘reordered priorities,’’ and told his disciples to ‘‘Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love.” Thus, King entreated to his audience, “I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. If you want to be important—wonderful, if you want to be recognized—wonderful, and 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.”
King concluded the February 1968 sermon by imagining his own funeral. He urged the congregation not to dwell on his life’s achievements, including his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. King asked to be remembered as one who ‘‘tried to give his life serving others.” He implored his congregation to remember his attempts to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort prisoners. ‘‘Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,’’ King exclaimed. ‘‘Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.
To that end, King also wanted all of us to aim to be truly great, so our lives may be a blessing on the world.