I have read the major biographical works on Martin Luther King Jr. and recognize that he was a greatly flawed man, with many weaknesses, and whose theology was less than orthodox. But at the same time I recognize him as an instrument of God, a prophet if you will, who God raised up at a crucial moment in our nation's history to confront the injustice of racial segregation. He become the leading voice of the civil rights movement, not because he sought such a role, but because he found himself thrust into it by the circumstances of the day.
He acted with great physical courage in the face of brutality and lived with the awareness that he most likely would face a martyr's death. I have visited the place where the assassin's bullet took his life and was greatly moved by the recognition that he had given his life to help set a nation free - both black and white.
I have read, and in some instances listened to, several sermons by Dr. King. Most people are familiar with his famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. You may remember the message he delivered the night before his death in Memphis entitled “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop.” But the sermon that has most impacted was one that is less known. It was entitled “The Drum Major Instinct.” It was delivered in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Atlanta Georgia, on February 4, 1968. The message conveyed in this sermon based on Mark 10:35-40 resonates with me.
Dr. King begins by laying out the situation as James and John ask to be “seated on Jesus’ right and left in glory” (vs. 37). He then points out that James and John were expressing a common desire for all of us. The desire to be in front leading the parade – the drum major instinct. He then uses this metaphor to describe the negative manifestations it can produce such as racism and class oppression. But he goes on to show that this desire – the drum major instinct – can be properly directed for good. Here is the conclusion of his message:
“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 that's all I want to say.
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he's traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.
Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.”
It is my prayer that the desire in all of us to be the “drum major,” out front leading the parade, be properly directed by the Holy Spirit for Christ’s honor and glory.