On February 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a profound message entitled “The Drum Major Instinct” at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He described this instinct as the common human desire to standout distinctively from everyone else. Understanding that this instinct is engrained in the human psyche, Dr. King encouraged us to utilize this yearning for the betterment of mankind, as he preached …” the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct. It is a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. 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 the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity."
Dr. King delivered this powerful speech only two months prior to his assassination on April 4, 1968. Ironically, he shared with the congregation how he wanted his legacy defined at his funeral. The nation was able to hear parts of his profound message, as it was played at his televised funeral service.
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)
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. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes) 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. (Amen) And that’s all I want to say.—Dr. Martin Luther King
Today is the observance of Martin Luther King Day here in the United States, and his words ring as true today as they did decades ago. His message does not only refer to race relations or economic disparities, but also to how individuals treat one another regardless of race. Dr. King understood that despite the obvious color and cultural differences that exist, we are all connected as one. We are each accountable to protect each other, and have a moral responsibility to understand each other’s pain.
Although each of us has the capability to be less self-centered and motivated for selfish reasons, it sometimes takes a drastic event to bring out the servant leader in each of us. I, personally, witnessed this recently. You see…several days ago, the world learned that Haiti had suffered a catastrophic earthquake, and that hundreds of thousands were feared dead. This horrific situation, as tragic as it is, has brought out the best in everyone. The outpouring of love, empathy, and support has been overwhelming. As a Haitian-American, I can say that such empathy and thoughtfulness has sustained me in the recent week.
While it’s never too late to understand the significance of being a drum major for peace, justice, and righteousness, it’s always better to have this understanding earlier rather than later. As tragic as it is, what is happening in Haiti can offer an opportune time to discuss the importance of empathy and service with children. Treating others as they would want to be treated is such an important life skill because one never thinks that a traumatic event will happen to us…that is…until it happens. In that moment, each of us yearns for others to care. If you don’t already, try volunteering as a family at a homeless shelter; tutoring children in a Women’s shelter; collecting cans to donate money; or visiting youths battling cancer at the local hospital. What ever you choose to do…simply do something, because imparting the notion of the drum major of which Dr. King spoke to our children is sure to impact the world as we know it.