Remembering Dr. King and the Drum Major Instinct

Clergy Beyond Borders honors the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his 43rd yartzheit [“death anniversary” in the Jewish tradition], by sharing words from his final sermon, The Drum Major Instinct. Like his final, I’ve been to the mountaintop speech (April 3, 1968), King’s final sermon of February 4, 1968 is as pertinent today as on the day it was preached.

The sermon is based on the Gospel of Mark 10:35 (Christian Bible), in which disciples James and John ask to be seated at the right and left hand of Jesus in the world to come. The ills King sees resulting from an unchecked “drum major instinct” are still very much with us. And King’s urging that each of us harness that instinct by striving “to be first in love…first in moral excellence…first in generosity” seems equally apt.

The Unharnessed “Drum Major Instinct”:

…We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade….

There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive. (Make it plain) And that’s where I want to move now. I want to move to the point of saying that if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one’s personality to become distorted. I guess that’s the most damaging aspect of it: what it does to the personality….

And then the final great tragedy…when one fails to harness this instinct, (Glory to God) he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. (Amen) And whenever you do that, you engage in some of the most vicious activities. You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up. (Make it plain) And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct.

Now the other problem is, when you don’t harness the drum major instinct—this uncontrolled aspect of it—is that it leads to snobbish exclusivism. It leads to snobbish exclusivism. (Make it plain)…

When the church is true to its nature, (Whoo) it says, “Whosoever will, let him come.” (Yes) And it does not supposed to satisfy the perverted uses of the drum major instinct. It’s the one place where everybody should be the same, standing before a common master and savior. (Yes, sir) And a recognition grows out of this—that all men are brothers because they are children (Yes) of a common father.

…Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first. (Make it plain, today, ‘cause I’m against it, so help me God) And they have said over and over again in ways that we see with our own eyes….It has led to the most tragic prejudice, the most tragic expressions of man’s inhumanity to man.

And not only does this thing go into the racial struggle, it goes into the struggle between nations. And I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy….

Harnessing the Instinct: King Reviews Jesus’ Response to James and John

…What was the answer that Jesus gave these men? It’s very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned them. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, “You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?”

But that isn’t what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, “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. (Yes) 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. (Amen) 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.”

And 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.” This is what Jesus said to James and John. “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.” (Amen)…

Remembering and Following Dr. King

King concluded his sermon by discussing his own funeral and reporting how he’d like to eulogized:

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes) 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. (Amen) And that’s all I want to say.

The entire sermon is available on-line in text and audio. On this anniversary, consider listening to this or another of Dr. King’s orations. And consider pursuing Dr. King’s challenge through The Reconciliation Ride and other efforts of CBB and partners. May the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. be for a blessing. And may we continue to learn from his teaching.

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