MLK warned against placing too much emphasis on self

Posted Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Yes, if you want to say I was a drum major, say I was a drum major for justice. Say I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.

-- Martin Luther King Jr.

Feb. 4, 1968

Two months to the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to support some lowly but determined striking garbage workers, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last sermon at his beloved Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

He had chosen as his subject, "The Drum Major Instinct."

Some say that King's last speech, the night before he was killed April 4, 1968 -- the one invoking the spirit of Moses going to the mountaintop to view the Promised Land -- indicated that he had a premonition of his impending horrible death. But the same could be said of the final sermon that moved his congregation on that Sunday 60 days earlier.

And although many will focus on the civil rights leader's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech as the nation this weekend commemorates the anniversary of his birth 84 years ago, anyone who calls himself or herself a "leader" ought to read and reflect on those last words he uttered in his home church. (Full text of speech: stanford.io/4nxh9)

In many ways, King was an accidental national leader, a young pastor who had recently arrived in Montgomery, Ala., when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. King's newness to town made him the ideal person to act as spokesman for a newly organized group and to lead a boycott of the Montgomery buses.

It was an event that catapulted him into the nation's consciousness and to the head of an ever-growing civil rights movement that would change the country forever.

He accepted those reins of leadership, endured the hardships, sacrificed and suffered along with the people for whom he was fighting -- from attacks in the streets to jail cells in Birmingham.

Many in the country celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a "day of service," doing something for others. That is a highly appropriate observance, as it demonstrates King's teachings.

In that last sermon, King explained that the desire for recognition, importance, to be first and a leader -- the "drum major instinct" -- was natural, but he warned that it could be destructive, resulting in super egos, self-centeredness and thinking that one is better than others. To those who would be leaders and who crave greatness, he taught the lesson of Christ: "that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant."

That's why King said that if you want to be a drum major, be the kind who steps out as a leader for justice and peace.

All leaders ought to accept that creed -- not just elected officials in city halls, statehouses and the nation's capital, but community organizers, PTA presidents, heads of civic groups, lay members of religious organizations and, yes, even those in our military ranks.

That's how we could honor King, and many of the other great leaders who sacrificed for this country.

Before finishing that Sunday sermon, King talked about his own death, saying he didn't want the eulogist to talk too long or mention his Nobel Peace Prize, "three or four hundred other awards" or where he went to school.

Instead, he said, he'd like somebody to mention that he tried to give his life serving others.

Because he had no accumulated wealth, King said about the only thing he would have to leave behind is "a committed life."

What more could a nation ask?

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