Happy Birthday MLK: Remembering the Teachings of a Drum Major

Happy Birthday MLK: Remembering the Teachings of a Drum Major

The VOICE Staff

This year, as Americans prepare to celebrate what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 88th birthday, it would be remiss not to also acknowledge that in just a few short weeks, the nation will also recognize the 50th anniversary of the great civil rights leader’s assassination. 

The 50th anniversary of King’s assassination will provide a second opportunity later this year to focus on the significance of his life and legacy. 

Those who embrace King’s doctrine of human dignity fueled by resistance to its twin enemies of racism and poverty, usually have their picks of King’s most compelling speeches. Often listed among them is the sermon he preached from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4, 1968, just weeks before his assassination on April 4. The world heard excerpts from this speech played during his memorial service a few days later.

During the sermon, King discussed what he believed was the primary motivating force in man. He talked about the premise posed by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who believed libido was the primary motivating force. However, King sided instead with Austrian psychotherapist, Alfred Adler, who believed man’s primary motivating force was his “striving for perfection.” This phrase was believed to mean the desire we all have to fulfill our potential, to realize our ideals. Others have called it something similar to self-actualization. 

Adler, however, claimed he would not describe it as “striving for perfection” and instead believed it was better defined as an “aggression drive” or according to the Journal Psche, “the frustrated reaction we have when our basic needs, such as the need to eat or be loved, are not being met.” Of course, this lends itself to negative connotations and humanity’s tendency toward this negative connotation, was the foundation of King’s sermon. 

King called Alfred Adler’s “striving for perfection or aggression drive” the “drum major instinct.” “The drum major instinct can lead to exclusivism in one’s thinking, and can lead one to feel that because he has some training, he’s a little better than that person that doesn’t have it, or because he has some economic security, that he’s a little better than the person who doesn’t have it.” King added, “And that’s the uncontrolled, perverted use of the drum major instinct.” 

Dr. King speaking at Ebenezzer Baptist church with his father seated to his right.

King called on those present that day to think about what has happened in history owed to the perverted use of the drum major instinct. He reminded them, “It has led to the most tragic prejudice, the most tragic expressions of man’s inhumanity to man.” 

As one reviews parts of this speech, some might be easily reminded of the negative aspects of the drum major instinct being actively at work in the halls of power today, particularly as it relates to the push and pull between President Trump and the leaders of Iran and North Korea on the issue of nuclear weapons. 

For example, during the speech King spoke about the nuclear arms race between Russia and the United States, “But this is where we are drifting, and we are drifting there, because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. I must be first. I must be supreme. Our nation must rule the world. And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.” 

During those dark and uncertain days in America’s history, King stood and courageously talked about the lessons to be found in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and then eerily warned, “And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening.” 

Yet, it is important to know that King also spoke that day about possibilities, about hope, about the positive aspects of the drum major instinct. 

King stressed there was nothing wrong with wanting to be first, to be great, to be important, to be significant. He said that people ought to be. He said of the drum major instinct, “It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it” And then, he encouraged the audience. “Don’t give it up,” he said. “Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first.” He then issued a challenge, “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.” 

This year, as we celebrate King’s birthday and reflect on his life, his teachings and his legacy, communities around the nation will once again honor him for the man that he was. King was not a perfect man, he never professed to be, but he understood and harnessed his drum major instinct. 

King summed up his own life in this regard and there is consensus that no one else could have summed it up better. He said, “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.” 

Through his work, King challenged every American to harness his/her own drum major.

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