Reluctant Drum Majors: The Unfinished Legacy of MLK

mlk1Probably my favorite sermon from Dr. King was, “The Drum Major Instinct.” The great line, “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. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness,” comes from that message.

If you haven’t heard or read “The Drum Major Instinct,” before going any further take a moment and click on the link.

Another fantastic read, is this speech by Valerie Smith, the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature and director of the Program in African-American Studies, entitled “Memory.” In it she, among other things, speaks of “The Drum Major Instinct.” I particularly like her perspective on how we try to reduce Dr. King to an icon.

Once, after listening to that sermon, I started thinking about High School. You see, I am embarrassed to admit that in High School – um… in High School, I was a drum major. There I said it. Not the impressive strutting to the rhythm kind of drum major you will find at the A&T Aggie’s football games, mind you. No, my shirt was made of silk and the collar reached my shoulders. The pants were just a bit to form fitting for my taste and I wasn’t there for show, my only job was to direct the band.

Not to bore you too much with the story, but I was a reluctant drum major. In Junior High (I guess I’m supposed to call it Middle School now), I was a drummer. Technically I was a “percussionist,” but I really could not read a note, so I preferred to think of myself as a drummer. I was pretty good at it and the “easy A” certainly didn’t hurt my GPA.

When I moved to High School, I was one of the first ever sophomores at Asheboro High to earn the right to play the tri-tones (that’s the set of three drums) in the marching band. To be quite honest, I really loved it and, as I said, the “easy A” certainly didn’t hurt my GPA.

By the end of that year I was put in a very uncomfortable position. The Band director had called me in after school one day. “Mark,” he said, “I grade people here on their ability to live up to there potential.” “No problem there,” I thought, “I put everything I have into those drums.” He continued, “And I believe you have the potential to be a drum major.”

Now here’s the thing, I’d say there were a good number of the people in the band would have paid good money to hear those very words. I, on the other hand, felt like I had been told that Jesus would be appearing in the auditorium next week and I had been elected to run the coat check. It was devastating. I didn’t want to do it. I liked how things were going. I didn’t know anything about being a drum major. The very thought of it frightened me. I was a reluctant drum major.

Thinking of “The Drum Major Instinct” and what Dr. King teaches us about human behavior and the behavior God expects from us, I believe that we, each one of us, are reluctant drum majors. I believe that there are two sides to the drum major persona. One lives out the Drum Major Instinct. That instinct, as Dr. King puts it, is on a “quest for attention and recognition and importance.” That’s the part of us that tries to one up the neighbor and feels like many of those who are less fortunate are probably either getting what they deserve or are trying to take advantage of the system. It is also the part of the persona that likes Dr. King as an icon. It likes to wrap him up in a few clever remarks and keep him buried in 1968.

I believe however that there is a second stronger part of the drum major persona. It is that piece of us that was formed by the very breath of God in the very image of God. It is the reluctant drum major. It isn’t seeking attention or recognition or importance. It is a reflection of the God who made us; the God who loves us, all of us; the God who suffered here on earth through the person of Jesus. That part of us does not seek attention or recognition or importance – it only seeks justice and peace and righteousness.

We, all of us, have let the less Godly part of the drum major in us win out. We, all of us, have reduced – yes,reduced Dr. King to the status of an icon – a logo if you will, a picture of a time gone by, no longer relevant. Oh, we say the right words. We talk the right talk, but the status seeking drum major in us is only playing the game. For if we were to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk – well, we might have to stoop down from the heights of our comfortable lives to look into the eyes of those who, contrary to what we might think, are not trying to take advantage of the system but rather are being taken advantage of by the system.

The reluctant drum major in us sees that. It sees the ills of the world. It sees how God’s children are marginalized as the band plays on as if nothing is wrong, or at the very least as if all is right. That part of us calls out, “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” That, that is the message of Dr. King – not the icon, but Dr. King the reluctant drum major.

Truly answering God’s call to be instruments of justice on this earth – to let justice roll down like mighty waters – means, for every one of us, living life differently than we do right now. It might feel devastating. Many of us don’t want to do it. Most of us like how things are going. For heaven sake, we don’t know anything about being a drum major. The very thought of it frightens us. But if we don’t do it, in the words of Dr. King, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” (Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963)

So, on this day, the day we honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I ask you to look at your life, look at your heart and answer this one simple question: Which one is winning? The status seeking drum major…or the reluctant drum major? Have you turned the legacy of King into to an iconic tomb or are you marching to the tune of his biblically inspired message? What I can tell you is that in life there is no “easy A” but God still wants us to live up to our potential.

Let us take up the march as reluctant drum majors. Let us shout to the world, not only in words but in our daily deeds, “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”


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