On 4 February 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., preached “The Drum Major Instinct” from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Ironically, two months before his assassination on 4 April 1968, he told his congregation what he would like said at his funeral: “I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody” (King, “The Drum Major,” 185). Excerpts were played at King’s nationally televised funeral service, held at Ebenezer on 9 April 1968.
King’s sermon was an adaptation of the 1952 homily “Drum-Major Instincts” by J. Wallace Hamilton, a well-known, liberal, white Methodist preacher. Both men tell the biblical story of James and John, who ask Jesus for the most prominent seats in heaven. At the core of their desire was a “drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade” (King, “The Drum Major,” 170–171). King warns his congregation that this desire for importance can lead to “snobbish exclusivism” and “tragic race prejudice”: “Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior … and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first” (King, “The Drum Major,” 176; 178). Conversely, King preached that when Jesus responded to the request by James and John, he did not rebuke them for their ambition, but taught that greatness comes from humble servitude. As King put it, Jesus “reordered priorities,” and told his disciples to “Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love” (King, “The Drum Major,” 181; 182).
King used Jesus’ own life as an example of how the priority of love could provide greatness. In his biographical sketch of Jesus, King preached that Jesus owned nothing, and when public opinion turned against him he was called a “rabblerouser” and a “troublemaker” for “[practicing] civil disobedience” (King, “The Drum Major,” 183). King notes that, although by worldly standards Jesus was a failure, no one else has “affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one solitary life” (King, “The Drum Major,” 184).
King concluded the February 1968 sermon by imagining his own funeral. Urging the congregation not to dwell on his life’s achievements, including his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, King asked to be remembered as one who “tried to give his life serving others” (King, “The Drum Major,” 185). He implored his congregation to remember his attempts to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort prisoners. “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King intoned. “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” (King, “The Drum Major,” 185–186).
Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 2006.
Hamilton, “Drum-Major Instincts,” in Ride the Wild Horses!, 1952.
King, “The Drum Major Instinct,” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, in A Knock at Midnight, ed. Carson and Holloran, 1998.