The Drum Major Instinct

Nearly 51 years ago, on February 4, 1968 – and just 63 days before his assassination – Dr. King delivered his famous The Drum Major Instinct sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. (You may listen to the entire sermon here.) Excerpts from this sermon were played at his nationally televised funeral, also at Ebenezer Baptist Church, on April 9, 1968.

Today we review and reflect on his words in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2019.

A. Description of the Drum Major Instinct:
Dr. King begins his sermon by describing what is the Drum Major Instinct, using the question of Jesus by James and John that they be allowed to sit at the right and left of Jesus in heaven as his Biblical text (Mark 10).

“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… We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade… Now in adult life, we still have it, and we really never get by it. We like to do something good. And you know, we like to be praised for it.”

B. Consequences of the Drum Major Instinct:
Dr. King then discusses several destructive consequences that come from a Drum Major Instinct.

  1. “If it isn’t harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. Have you ever heard people that really become sickening because they just sit up all the time talking about themselves. And they just boast and boast and boast, and that’s the person who has not harnessed the drum major instinct.”
  2. “It causes you to lie about who you know sometimes.”
  3. “And the other thing is that it causes one to engage ultimately in activities that are merely used to get attention.”
  4. “…when one fails to harness this instinct, they end up trying to push others down in order to push themselves up… Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that people have to feel superior.”

“The great issue of life,” Dr. King says, “is to harness the drum major instinct.”

C. Responses to the Drum Major Instinct:
As he concludes his sermon, Dr. King returns to the life and words of Jesus in order to remind us of how we should respond to our own, natural Drum Major-ness… And, oddly, and surprisingly, it was NOT to dismiss the Drum Major Instinct within us.

“Yes, don’t give up this instinct… Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. 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.

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 they who are greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness…

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. And you can be that servant.”

There is a great democracy – a great whoever – in this definition of greatness. Jesus initiates a kingdom where ALL can be great because ALL can serve, with Christ as our example. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 20:26-28)

We’re grateful this day for the wisdom and words of Dr. King to remind us of and inspire us towards this Biblical ethic.

And it is this spirit of Christian love – the instinct to be great in service, for His glory – that we seek to offer equal and quality education to the schools and students of our great city, “so that we can make of this old world a new world.”