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“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of [this] moment.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. from his “I Have a Dream” speech

For many, Martin Luther King Day is a day of service and reflection. As I reflect on the life of one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century, I can’t help but pause for a moment and take note of the political, social, and economic events that have taken place in our country over the past decade.

Who knew that Barack Obama, an African-American junior senator from the state of Illinois, would put together a historic campaign to become President of the United States? In doing so, he successfully defeated John McCain, a senior member of Congress who initially voted against creating a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Interesting, no?

Fifty-one years after King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, an African-American has now twice stood historically juxtaposed at the opposite end of the National Mall on the steps of the Capital to be sworn in as President. Amazing! In many ways, the dream King spoke of over fifty years ago in Washington D.C. has been conferred upon us as a nation. But, in order to continue to fulfill that dream, we have to be able to recognize the ills still prevalent in society.

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Socially, this past year has prominently featured issues of race and injustice. From the highly charged situation in Ferguson to the tragic shooting of two Brooklyn police officers, racial tensions still play a prominent role in our society. Ask ten African Americans what they’d do to “fix” things and you may get ten different answers. We can’t even agree in our own community on the right thing to do to get black youth to live productive lives. In any event, racial tensions aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

What Would Martin Say?

As we reflect on Martin Luther King’s legacy, we must ask the pertinent questions. What if Martin was alive? What if he was selected to deliver a speech today at the Lincoln Memorial? What would he say? Some people would be more concerned about whether or not he mentions the name Jesus. Others would hope for a big “in your face” to John McCain for voting against a day in his honor. I can imagine King looking over heaven’s balcony and lovingly saying to us, “No, remember, the drum major instinct.”

Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Atlanta, Georgia, on February 4, 1968, King’s “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon reminds us all that political kingdoms are not the zenith of our existence. Based on a passage in Mark 10—where James and John (the Sons of Thunder) request political power from Christ—King reiterates the fact we all share that “drum major instinct.” The drum major instinct is the instinct to be out front, the instinct to lead the parade, and the instinct to be first. Unharnessed, this instinct can become destructive. King notes, “…the drum major instinct is real…It often causes us to live above our means.”

Hello! The failed housing market was caused by this kind of instinct (both on the part of corporations and individuals). It’s this instinct years ago that caused CEOs of large corporations to board jets to come to Washington to ask for bailout funds. As one congressman noted, “It [was] almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in a high hat and tuxedo.”

Race and Superiority

King also notes the race problem grows out of the unharnessed drum major instinct. King realized there is a need some people have to feel superior. How else could one explain racial tension in America? It could be racism directed at immigrant workers who others perceive are taking jobs away from “real Americans” (excuse me, are we not all immigrants?) or the racism implicit in the disparate treatment of minorities in the justice system. Either way, there is, for some, a privilege attached to belonging to a particular group of people.

The African American community is not exempt from this phenomenon. Racial tension among African-Americans and Latino-Americans is at an all-time high. It hurts to see African-Americans participate in the same discriminatory activities our ancestors experienced. Hearing some in our community say, “they should go back to where they came from” is eerily reminiscent of what many African-Americans heard decades ago.

Properly Harnessed Instinct

What does a properly harnessed drum major instinct look like? In the sermon, King encourages us all to embrace this instinct. He notes:

“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 then turns introspectively to himself:

“…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.”

If King were to offer a speech today on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I believe he would encourage us all to continue to harness the drum major instinct and serve. Serve as lights for racial reconciliation. Serve as opponents of gender discrimination. Serve as mediators in the caustically divisive sexuality issue. Serve as a advocates for justice. Serve as advocates for peace in Nigeria and the Gaza strip. Serve as a people who hold corporations accountable for their actions. King was this kind of drum major. He harnessed the instinct found in us all (that is, the instinct to aspire to greatness) and used it to serve.

Every drum major needs music. King’s music? He marched to the cacophonous sounds of dogs, water hoses, and bullhorns. He marched to the sound of streams of justice rolling down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream. He marched to the beat of the One from whom every family in heaven and in earth derives its name. He marched to the beat of the Drummer in whom all things are held together. He marched to the beat of the Great Different Drummer.

I believe any speech King would offer today would remind us to serve others in love. We all like to talk about change, but change requires the same kind of servant leadership that King demonstrated in his own life. This model of leadership has worked for centuries and can be summed up in Christ’s response to the Sons of Thunder: “And whosoever would be first among you, shall be servant of all.”

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