Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today there will be many people quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — it is the federal holiday in his honor, after all. I want to share an excerpt from one of his sermons that’s had a major impact on my life.

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to work on a script for an MLK-focused event, and I came across his sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct.” For far too long, my interaction and understanding of Dr. King was limited to his iconic speeches like “I Have a Dream” and his well-known letters from Birmingham jail.

This sermon hit me differently though. He ended his time at Ebenezer Baptist Church that morning talking about his legacy — what he hoped people would remember about him. And it wrecked me.

So I thought I’d share this excerpt today, in honor of a man who is a huge inspiration and beacon of light, even all these years after his death — and especially in the face of the continuation of racial injustice.

Thank you, Dr. King, for being our drum major.

An Excerpt from “The Drum Major Instinct”
Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA
February 1968

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.

If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.

Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, 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.

You can listen to the sermon recording and read the full transcript here.

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