In short, greatness cannot be won by might, nor by virtue of belonging to a privileged group. But, King preaches, if his audience can harness the drum-major instinct and put it to use in the service of justice, they can strive toward the kind of greatness Jesus embodied. And to serve, King exhorts, requires no entitlements or credentials but “a heart full of grace” and “a soul generated by love.” This path to distinction and recognition, he suggests, is available to all.
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The conclusion of “The Drum Major Instinct” is masterfully wrought, as King captures the urgency of his moral-political message by anticipating his own end. “Every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral,” he says. “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?’” Speaking in a posthumous voice, as if calling out from the dominion of the dead, he instructs his congregation to keep the funeral short. He asks that whoever eulogizes him be brief, skipping over his resume of countless awards and degrees and instead focusing on how he died pursuing justice. With unfettered emotion, King says:
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)
Charged with passion and pathos, these lines are perhaps the sermon’s most stirring. A first-rate orator, King uses repetition not only to itemize the things he had done to earn his death (and to embody the very lesson he’d preached), but also to stress key phrases like “I did try” and “say that day.” King takes the sermon to its emotional peak and ultimately concludes with a grief-driven recapitulation of the homily’s ideas:
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 … Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, (Yes) not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.
On April 9, 1968, the day of King’s funeral, Coretta Scott King, his widow and comrade, requested that the elegiac ending of “The Drum Major Instinct” be played as part of the memorial service. This, too, is spellbinding to watch. How uncanny that only two months after King stood to deliver this sermon on the same dais he would be lying in a coffin; and that the same words would be spoken again in the same church to eulogize him. Yet, King’s murder wasn’t unexpected, as “The Drum Major Instinct” attests. During the short interval of his public life, from 1954 to 1968, death had become King’s close companion—his house had been bombed, he had been stabbed, and he had faced a legion of white vigilantes and sheriffs.