“The Drum Major Instinct” by Martin Luther King Jr., An Outline
Martin Luther King Jr. preached The Drum Major Instinct on February 4, 1968, exactly two months before he died. In it he describes the longing for significance in the human heart, ways in which that longing is dangerous, and how Jesus repurposes that longing. He preached this sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. All quotes are from Dr. King.
I. The Drum Major Instinct Defined
He introduces the passage for the sermon from Mark 10:
Beginning with the thirty-fifth verse of that chapter, we read these words: “And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came unto him saying, ‘Master, we would that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire.’ And he said unto them, ‘What would ye that I should do for you?’ And they said unto him, ‘Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.’
He begins with a caution:
…before we condemn them, let us see that we all have the drum major instinct.
He defines the Drum Major Instinct:
We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.
II. The Drum Major Instinct Illustrated
He then gives three illustrations the Drum Major Instinct. It begins early:
… we begin early to ask life to put us first. Our first cry as a baby was a bid for attention.
B. Social Clubs
It’s the reason some people will join social clubs:
Now the presence of the drum major instinct is why so many people are “joiners.” You know, there are some people who just join everything. And it’s really a quest for attention and recognition and importance.
It’s the reason why we are susceptible to advertisements:
[Advertisers] have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car.
D. Keeping up with the Joneses
It’s the reason many of us live above our means:
Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income? (Amen) [laughter] You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford.
III. The Danger of the Drum Major Instinct
Left unchecked, the Drum Major instinct is harmful:
… if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one’s personality to become distorted. I guess that’s the most damaging aspect of it: what it does to the personality.
For some people, it leads to self-importance and boasting:
Have you ever heard people that—you know, and I’m sure you’ve met them—that really become sickening because they just sit up all the time talking about themselves.
B. Influence Peddling
For some people, it leads to bragging about the important people they know:
There are some people who are influence peddlers. And in their attempt to deal with the drum major instinct, they have to try to identify with the so-called big-name people.
It can even lead to committing acts of crime:
And the other thing is that it causes one to engage ultimately in activities that are merely used to get attention… They don’t feel that they are getting enough attention through the normal channels of social behavior, and so they turn to anti-social behavior in order to get attention, in order to feel important
Tragically, it leads to diminishing and using others:
he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up.
E. Snobbish Exclusivism
It leads to taking pride in being on the in while keeping others on the out:
The danger is that they can become forces of classism and exclusivism where somehow you get a degree of satisfaction because you are in something exclusive.
F. Race Prejudice
It leads to devaluing others on the basis of race:
Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first.
IV. The Drum Major Instinct at the National Level
The same dynamic operates can operate at the National level:
And I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy.
He references the potentially deadly consequences of Nuclear War:
If somebody doesn’t bring an end to this suicidal thrust that we see in the world today, none of us are going to be around, because somebody’s going to make the mistake through our senseless blunderings of dropping a nuclear bomb somewhere.
He turns his focus to America:
God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war.
He shares his fear for the future of America:
Every now and then I go back and read Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening. And we have perverted the drum major instinct.
V. The Drum Major Instinct, Repurposed
So what was Jesus really saying? He didn’t rebuke them for wanting to be great, he redefined greatness itself:
One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned them. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, “You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?”
But that isn’t what Jesus did; he did something altogether different.
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. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness.
VI. The Life of True Greatness, Illustrated
There was a man who lived a long time ago. He lived a relatively simple life:
…he just went about serving. He was born in an obscure village, (Yes, sir) the child of a poor peasant woman. And then he grew up in still another obscure village, where he worked as a carpenter until he was thirty years old… He didn’t have much. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. (Yes) He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never went two hundred miles from where he was born. He did none of the usual things that the world would associate with greatness.
This man was the most influential in all of history:
Nineteen centuries have come and gone and today he stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history. All of the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned put together (Yes) have not affected the life of man on this earth (Amen) as much as that one solitary life
VII. What He Would Like at His Funeral
He concludes with a reflection on what he would not like people to say at his funeral.
A. What He Would Not Like
He would not like to be known for his accomplishments:
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. (Yes) 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. (Yes)
B. What He Would Like
He would rather like to be known for serving others:
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. (Yes)
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. (Amen)
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. (Yes)
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. (Yes)
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. (Lord)
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. (Yes)
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.
King Jr., Martin Luther. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Harper & Row, 1986.