Two months before he was murdered, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon on "The Drum Major Instinct." He began with the text in Mark 10:35-41, in which James and John asked Jesus if they will be given the right to sit at his right and left hands in glory. Instead of rebuking them, Jesus said this honor was not his to give, and concluded
[W]hosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.Dr. King then observed,
[W]e must understand that we have some of the same James and John qualities. And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It's a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.He then illustrated ways that instinct affects us badly: through competitive consumerism that leads us to live beyond our means; by bragging, name-dropping, and spreading pernicious gossip; by anti-social behavior meant to attract attention; and by a "snobbish exclusivism," including racial prejudice, which, he ruefully observed, is found in some churches.
Like Jesus, Dr. King did not condemn this "drum major instinct." Instead, he said, it should be re-directed in a positive way:
And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. 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.At the conclusion of the sermon, he said:
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.Just before these final words, he quoted from the lyrics of "Then My Living Will Not Be In Vain," sung here by Patti LaBelle: Ms. LaBelle sang this as a tribute to Oseola McCarty, a washerwoman who, following a life of hard work and thrift, was able to leave a bequest of $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi.
You can read the full text of Dr. King's sermon here and hear a recording here.
Dr. King photo: File photo-Public Domain.