“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, a soul generated by love.”
These well-known words are from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4, 1968. Dr. King was explaining that we all start out with the ingrained instinct to be “drum majors”: everyone wants to be important, to be first, to lead the parade. Watch a group of children try to form a line and right away you’ll see this instinct in action. But Dr. King said too many people never outgrow this instinct—and by constantly struggling to be the most powerful or famous or wealthiest or best-educated, we forget one of the Gospels’ and life’s largest truths: the real path to greatness is through service.
This is one of the key lessons we should teach our children about Dr. King. Many of them have just studied Dr. King in school in the days leading up to his birthday, and many have learned to see him as a history book hero—a larger-than-life, mythical figure. But it’s crucial for them to understand Dr. King wasn’t a superhuman with magical powers. Just as the extraordinary new movie Selma is reminding a new generation of filmgoers, our children need to be reminded that Dr. King was a real person—just like all of the other ministers, parents, teachers, neighbors, and other familiar adults in their lives today.
I first heard Dr. King speak in person at a Spelman College chapel service during my senior year in college. Dr. King was just 31 but he had already gained a national reputation during the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott five years earlier. He became a mentor and friend. Although I do remember him as a great leader and a hero, I also remember him as someone able to admit how often he was afraid and unsure about his next step. But faith prevailed over fear, uncertainty, fatigue, and sometimes depression. It was his human vulnerability and ability to rise above it that I most remember. “If I Can Help Somebody Along the Way” was his favorite song. He was an ordinary man who made history because he was willing to stand up and serve and make a difference in extraordinary ways as did the legions of other civil rights warriors in the 1950s and 1960s. We need to teach our children every day that they can and must make a difference too. “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”
Towards the end of “The Drum Major Instinct,” Dr. King told the congregation he sometimes thought about his own death and funeral. He said when that day came he didn’t want people to talk about his Nobel Peace Prize or his degrees or hundreds of awards: “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.” Dr. King was assassinated two months to the day after giving this sermon. But a recording of “The Drum Major Instinct” was played at his funeral, and many people think of these moving words in Dr. King’s voice as his own eulogy. He knew how he wanted to be remembered.
Americans across the country now celebrate Dr. King’s birthday as “a day on, not a day off” and use this day to come together for community service and action. But we shouldn’t wait for the holiday to come back around to remember and honor him this way. We can honor Dr. King’s legacy best by serving every day and standing together to build a movement to realize Dr. King’s dream and America’s dream and by following his lead in being a drum major for justice.
As our country faces morally and economically indefensible child poverty rates, wealth and income inequality, and grandstanding politicians who put party and politics ahead of principle and sound policy, I hope they will hear and follow our great 20th century prophet. In his last speech in Memphis the night before he was assassinated he gave us our marching orders: “…I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry. It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, in all of its symbolism, but ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and His children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.” His mandate was not just to God’s preachers but also to all of God’s people. That’s all of us.