Help realize King’s dream for America
As we pause this week to reflect upon the life and legacy on Martin Luther King Jr., many are often drawn to the humanitarian’s most memorable efforts: the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott; the Birmingham, Ala., protests or the 1963 March on Washington.
A gifted orator and studied minister, King’s most quoted words are likely his “I Have a Dream” speech, which came out of the famous march that culminated at the Lincoln Memorial.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal,” he said to an estimated crowd of 250,000 on that August day.
While King’s impassioned speech certainly played a part in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is still considered by many to be an unfulfilled dream. So how do we start to help fulfill it? We look to our favorite sermon by King for just such instructions, and unfortunately it was his last sermon, commonly titled “The Drum Major Instinct,” given at Feb. 4, 1968, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, just a few weeks before his assassination.
In this sermon, King speaks at length about a passage in the Gospel of Mark in which the apostles James and John ask Jesus to anoint them as those who will sit on his right and left sides in the afterlife. Jesus asks them if they are prepared to do what is necessary for such an honor, to which they reply they are. However, Jesus replies it is not an honor for him to bestow.
“But whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be ser vant of all,” he tells them.
James and John suffer from what King calls the “drum major instinct,” or “a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.” He talks at length about the theory developed by psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, who contends that this need for recognition is the dominant or basic impulse in life.
The “drum major instinct” is what drives vanity and jealousy, King says. If not properly “harnessed,” then we turn to worse ways to seek our recognition. So what are we to do about our “drum major instinct”? King said the answer to that question lies in Jesus’ answer to his apostles, in which he told them to harness their “drum major instinct” for good.
“And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness,” King said. “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.
“And this morning, the thing that I like about it: 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 and a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
Let us reflect upon King’s word and try to make ourselves more humble as we help shape the world to the place we want it to be.