Recently, it has been reported that a controversial inscription on the new Martin Luther King Memorial on the Washington D.C. Mall will be changed.
The inscription is 'I was a drum major for justice'. There are those who believe that this excerpt from a sermon of King, preached just a few months before his assassination, is too immodest. It makes it sound as if King promoted himself and, of course nothing can be further from the truth.
While I'm looking forward to visiting the Memorial important, I have great difficulty with attempts to make Dr. King seem too meek and too complimentary to the sentiments of our country's sympathies. I think both the rather severe visage of King in the memorial and the excerpted quote are appropriate. We need a King who jars our conscience. We need a King who aggravates and agitates us, as he did when he was alive.
These days, every effort to call our nation to justice is beaten back by calls for 'unity'. The 'unity' called for is usually challenged as 'divisive rhetoric'.
Pointing out income inequality is a call to 'class warfare'...
Pointing out racism, makes the person who identifies racism and racial insensitivity a racist...
Point to the erosion of our social compact and you are called a 'socialist'...
Point to the need for rational, fair immigration policies makes you 'unpatriotic'
Listen to the message from which the phrase 'drum major' associated with the quote in the memorial and you can see that King was neither benign in his rhetoric nor was he inoffensive in his denunciations. When he pointed out absurdity of white's feelings of racial superiority he said...
[The drum major instinct] leads to tragic—and we've seen it happen so often—tragic race prejudice. Many who have written about this problem—Lillian Smith used to say it beautifully in some of her books. And she would say it to the point of getting men and women to see the source of the problem. 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. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first. (Make it plain, today, ‘cause I’m against it, so help me God) And they have said over and over again in ways that we see with our own eyes. In fact, not too long ago, a man down in Mississippi said that God was a charter member of the White Citizens Council. And so God being the charter member means that everybody who's in that has a kind of divinity, a kind of superiority. And think of what has happened in history as a result of this perverted use of the drum major instinct. It has led to the most tragic prejudice, the most tragic expressions of man's inhumanity to man.
King called our country into account by calling attention to its flaws and misadventures.
"And not only does this thing [the drum major instinct] go into the racial struggle, it goes into the struggle between nations. And 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. 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. (Yeah) If somebody doesn't bring an end to this suicidal thrust that we see in the world today, none of us are going to be around, because somebody's going to make the mistake through our senseless blunderings of dropping a nuclear bomb somewhere. And then another one is going to drop. And don't let anybody fool you, this can happen within a matter of seconds. (Amen) They have twenty-megaton bombs in Russia right now that can destroy a city as big as New York in three seconds, with everybody wiped away, and every building. And we can do the same thing to Russia and China."
"But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. "I must be first." "I must be supreme." "Our nation must rule the world." (Preach it) And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I'm going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken."
"God didn't call America to do what she's doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I'm going to continue to say it. And we won't stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation."
He called the church into account, forcing it to face the drift from its mission.
"I know churches get in that bind sometimes. (Amen, Make it plain) I've been to churches, you know, and they say, "We have so many doctors, and so many school teachers, and so many lawyers, and so many businessmen in our church." And that's fine, because doctors need to go to church, and lawyers, and businessmen, teachers—they ought to be in church. But they say that—even the preacher sometimes will go all through that—they say that as if the other people don't count." (Amen)
"And the church is the one place where a doctor ought to forget that he's a doctor. The church is the one place where a Ph.D. ought to forget that he's a Ph.D. (Yes) The church is the one place that the school teacher ought to forget the degree she has behind her name. The church is the one place where the lawyer ought to forget that he's a lawyer. And any church that violates the "whosoever will, let him come" doctrine is a dead, cold church, (Yes) and nothing but a little social club with a thin veneer of religiosity."
"When the church is true to its nature, (Whoo) it says, "Whosoever will, let him come." (Yes) And it does not supposed to satisfy the perverted uses of the drum major instinct. It's the one place where everybody should be the same, standing before a common master and savior. (Yes, sir) And a recognition grows out of this—that all men are brothers because they are children (Yes) of a common father."
King did more than dream palatable dreams. And because of his willingness to place his very life on the line for Divine Truth, he deserves to be called 'a drum major' - whether we say he says it or whether the portion of the text of this message excerpted makes him say that is what he is.
He was indeed a drum major. The question is, are we?
You can read the text of the message and here the audio here.