A speech delivered by Marilyn Rhames at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death at the US Department of Education on April 3, 2018
Two months before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a powerful sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” and we’ve aptly named today’s commemoration event after it.
King based his sermon on the 10th chapter of the book of Mark, in which two brothers, James and John, asked Jesus to grant them a seat on the left and the right side of His throne in glory.
But Dr. King pointed out that their request had two major flaws:
One — these disciples mistakenly thought Jesus would overthrow the government and they were seeking political favors—seats in his cabinet in exchange for their loyal support. They didn’t understand that the kingdom that Jesus had been referring to not a physical one, but a spiritual one.
Two — and this is at the heart of King’s message — these brothers, these followers of Christ, were seeking selfish gain. They wanted to be first; to be seen as important. They wanted to live life as if they were leading a parade, like two proudly prancing, baton throwing drum majors. That’s why King decried this attitude as the “Drum Major Instinct.”
But before we judge James and John too harshly, King explained that we are all born with the drum major instinct. We all possess a deep desire to be a little more important than the next man, and he warned us of the dangers of the drum major instinct: ?
- It can cause us to be boastful and become full of ourselves. ?
- We can get swallowed up in debt by buying cars and homes that we cannot afford to impress others ?
- It can lead one to commit crimes—robbing, stealing, and lying to get ahead of the next man. ?
- The drum major instinct can make people think that because they have more education or more money than the next man, that their life is more significant than others. ?
- This mindset, King said, leads to exclusivity, which produces social vices like racism and classism.
After explaining all of this, King focused his attention on Jesus’ reply. Jesus told James and John that it wasn’t his place to promise them a position of greatness; that status had to be self-determined, for “whosoever will be great among you, shall be a servant: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.”
Let’s ponder that for 10 seconds in silence: “Whosoever will be great among you, shall be a servant: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.”
As I deliver these closing reflections after witnessing such an inspiring event that celebrated innovative pathways to success, I’m moved to tell you that the reason Dr. King is the most celebrated figure in American history; the reason why more city streets, parks and public buildings are named after Dr. King more than any of American who ever lived; the reason why just about every American child, by the age of six knows that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great man is because he was a “servant of all.”
He didn’t just fight for justice, but he was also committed to extending God’s love toward his oppressors through peaceful, nonviolent protests. While the oppressors were shouting insults and throwing bottles, Dr. King and his followers were singing songs of praise. In his “Letter in a Birmingham Jail,” King wrote that he must honor the humanity of all people, even those who hated him and wished him dead. You see, a “servant of all” seeks to shine God’s light on everyone, even their enemies.
But just like James and John misunderstood Jesus’s true intent, I believe that many of us have also misunderstood Dr. King’s true purpose.
Yes, King lobbied for civil rights legislation, but his efforts were so much deeper than that. King wanted to hold the American government accountable to God’s laws of love, peace justice. In his sermons and speeches, King repeatedly referred to the same spiritual kingdom and godly ideals that Jesus Christ had talked about. King tried to convince both Blacks and Whites that our humanity was intended for something so much greater than the war, segregation, and racial hatred that caused us to live beneath our privilege.
In essence, King’s Civil Rights movement was actually a spiritual movement. Let’s ponder that for 10 seconds in silence: At its core, King’s Civil Rights movement was a spiritual movement.
As I conclude, I’d like to share an excerpt from King’s “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon. At the end, clearly stated what his life’s purpose was and what he wanted is legacy to be:
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.
And 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 tha’s all I want to say.
Unlike my 75-year- old mother who was born in Jim Crow Mississippi, I cannot tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when the news came that Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed. It happened 50 years ago, and I had not yet been born.
But I can tell you that in 2011 I founded the nonprofit organization Teachers Who Pray explicitly because of Dr. King’s drum major for justice legacy. You see, King explained that our drum major instinct– our innate desire to be spectacular– is not to be despised, just properly channeled. The question is how will you choose to use it, serving others or serving yourself?