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The drum major instinct

January 15, 2010

This post was written by Harry Boyte, co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship. Boyte worked with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a field secretary with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the American Civil Rights Movement.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

While working in South Africa last month, I came upon a book chapter by Nicholas Rowe, dean of humanities at St. Augustine College in Johannesburg. His piece in Re-imagining the Social in South Africa; Critique, Theory and Post-apartheid Society brought me back to a sermon the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave shortly before his murder, titled “The Drum Major Instinct.”

Rowe describes how St. Augustine College was created 10 years ago out of a deepening concern that “now apartheid has been dismantled…we have ended up with this individualistic materialism.” He cites research that a spreading culture of consumerism is the most important factor in crime and violence in South Africa.

Against this dominant trend, St. Augustine’s goal is “to assert the common good as a framing value against the individualist materialist norms and logic.”

This brings me to the Drum Major Instinct, delivered by Martin Luther King on March 4, 1968. Using the story of Jesus’s disciples James and John who expressed the desire to be “by his side” in heaven, King had much the same message of St. Augustine College, with a down to earth, realistic dimension. He challenged his audience to acknowledge that the desire for recognition and success are part of the human condition.

“Before we condemn [James and John] too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance,” King said.

The problem comes when larger purposes are lost in the pursuit of materialistic success. “You see people over and over again,” said King, “[who] just live their lives trying to outdo the Joneses. If this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct.”

King moved from the individual level to race relations. “The poor white has been put into this position, where the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can’t hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out.” More broadly, the “drum major instinct” of success with narrow or selfish purpose, King argued, is shaping the world. “I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy,” said King. “And if something doesn’t happen to stop this trend, I’m sorely afraid that we won’t be here to talk about Jesus Christ and about God and about brotherhood too many more years.”

King concluded by pointing out that Jesus, in challenging his disciples James and John, didn’t condemn their desire for distinction. “He did something altogether different. He said in substance, ‘Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.’ But [Jesus] reordered priorities. And he said, ‘Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”

King’s message is powerfully and disturbingly apt today, in a time of unbridled greed, unrestrained competition, and rampant consumerism. Public work–engaging with others in public to do work with lasting value–can be understood as developing our sense of larger purpose and harnessing “the drum major instinct” to build the commonwealth.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrea Grazzini Walstrom permalink
    January 16, 2010 4:09 pm

    Harry Boyte’s reflection beautifully relates to the efforts of Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue, a leadership forum modeling how productive, not destructive, discourse can inspire effective civic change.

    The vivid picture Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King provides of the “poor white’s” false feeling of superiority — and the trajectory of destruction King predicted the worship of individual success would lead to is being realized, as Boyte points out. The impacts of our historical fathers’ and mothers’ selfish pursuits are disturbing. Which is why Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue is capturing the interest of so many people who are ready to stop pointing fingers and start working together.

    In King’s time the finger could logically point to whites, the prevailing class of power. But today our fingers can only logically point to us — the people in middle- and upper class communities. Regardless of our race, gender, faith or political idealogy we are the class of power.

    As we’ve kept up with the Joneses we’ve followed the Joneses into foreclosure. Even more troubling, we’ve cultivated a pandemic poverty of thought that justifies the brutal defense of self-interests and defensively fingers those who don’t explicitly share them for destroying our world. This is being propagated by such things as the increasingly (and astonishingly) aggressive emails and blog posts written and distributed by otherwise good people, be they Christian or not.

    While we attack what we view as the evil or idiocy of our ideological foes, we fail to see that power lies not in perpetuating polarized positions, but in pursuing understanding of our shared desires.

    This takes self-reflection — in King’s words: “looking honestly at our selves.” I would add it also takes seeing and listening deeply to those with whom we deeply differ with, even when it seems utterly impossible and ill-informed to. Our materialistic culture tries to convince us that achieving attention and success doesn’t happen by calmly embracing quaint notions of seeking shared humanity. And even if it could there simply is no time to indulge in hope that can’t be quantified by experts. But as we are painfully experiencing, our culture of blinding immediacy and greed is not to be trusted. Indeed, it often spreads lies. A fact few experts disagree with.

    If we can set aside our reactive “wants” for attention for a moment and recognize our common “needs” for a sense of shared purpose that does not deplete but rather fulfills our desire for individual importance we can disrupt this disturbing trend. And by doing so with the morally excellent behaviors our mothers, fathers and dieties expect of us, we can begin to redraw King’s dire picture and design our children’s future as something all together different.

    To begin, we must stop communicating with childish rhetoric and instead start demonstrating the content of our character. That is, to act as our parents — both the holy and the human — would expect us to. Not with regressive tantrums but instead with maturity.

    When we do we will achieve our full potentials for true greatness. The most important expression of which will be modeling for our children what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King modeled for us — the greater power of love, not hate, to transform our world.

    Andrea Grazzini Walstrom
    Founder and co-leader Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue

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