Hear MLK’s 1968 Speech “The Drum Major Instinct” WRITTEN IN STONE:
What Martin Luther King Didn’t Say—And What He Meant

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project
| October 19, 2011     


So reads the inscription along the right side of a 30 feet tall likeness of Martin Luther King, Jr. at his new $120 million memorial in Washington DC. This is not a quote, however, but a highly condensed line from a 1968 speech, now conveying a very different meaning from what the late civil rights leader intended.

The context, too, is crucial, for this paraphrased extract comes from the conclusion of a 39 minute metaphorical sermon about the human ego. Making that link is key to understanding what Dr. King did and did not mean. What comes across in the un-quote as self-aggrandizing, actually derives from a sermon denouncing egoism. What resonated in the time and space of the sermon, sounds illogical in isolation.

Actually, monument planners had originally intended to include a fuller, verbatim excerpt of his words, but changed their minds about which direction of the rock it would face. The false 'drum major' inscription At that point, the sculptor had apparently left too little room, so chief architect Ed Jackson, Jr. made the decision, basically autocratically, to use this truncated version instead. That decision has since been strongly criticized, with repeated calls to undo the error. The fact that the problem originated from an unintentional and poorly considered series of choices is important, for that itself validates the argument for correcting it. Meanwhile, we can take this as an opportunity to closely examine Dr. King’s actual message.

Listen to Dr. King’s entire speech:   

On February 4, 1968, Reverend King delivered “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The sermon examined man’s innate need for attention, praise and importance. This “quest for recognition”, he preached, has a dark side which, unharnessed, manifests itself in the need to feel superior to others, leading to behaviors ranging from racism to criminal mischief to warmongering. He called it the “drum major instinct”, and under this theme, went on to condemn a myriad of ego-driven dangers, including status seeking, social climbing, classism, mindless consumerism, conformity, pride, arrogance, greed, militarism and “snobbish exclusivism”.

It’s a fascinating and timeless speech, filled with humor, rich anecdotes, astonishing boldness and both Biblical and life-learned wisdom. (It’s also the unacknowledged adaptation of a 1949 sermon by Florida preacher J. Wallace Hamilton, but that’s another story).

Dr. King wished to show how Jesus responded to this often destructive “drum major” impulse in his fellow man — not with judgement or scorn, he emphasized, but with an attitude of transcendence. Jesus urged his disciples to redirect this energy toward service, generosity and love.

“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. That’s a new definition of greatness.”

“...The thing that I like about it”, added King, “[is that] by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”

Coming full circle, Dr. King’s conclusion tied in both the Bible story he began with and the “drum major” metaphor, but he had a profound personal note to share as well. As a lightning rod for racial tension in the country, Martin Luther King clearly sensed the ever present danger around him. He has already survived previous assassination attempts, including the bombing of his home. And so, Dr. King ended by relating his message of service to that of his own life, his mortality, and how he wished to be remembered.

On April 4, 1968, exactly two months to the day afterwards, Dr. King was dead.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator—that something we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, "What is it that I would want said?" And I leave the word to you this morning.

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. 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.

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.

Postscript: MLK Memorial Quote To Be Corrected (July 2013)

The FBI Campaign To Destroy “Evil” Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964 Letter)
The FBI Campaign To Destroy “Evil” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Related links:

Mahatma GANDHI and Mohammad MOSSADEGH — Global Icons of Justice

Sociologist Horace Cayton, Jr. Suggests Black People Learn From Iranians at U.N. (1951)

The mother of all misquotations: “WIPED OFF THE MAP” — The Rumor of the Century

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — "If I sit silently, I have sinned"

Facebook  Twitter  Google +  YouTube  Tumblr