Martin Luther King on the Drum Major Instinct


Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is an iconic figure who led the United States through one of its most transformative periods called the Civil Rights Era. His ability to lead and inspire the masses no doubt resulted from his ability to articulate the pain and darkness of the nation through his sermons and speeches, as well as his writings. Another layer to Dr. King’s leadership and influence was his ability to strategize and carry out action by uniting people despite their social differences (race, politics, gender, class, religion) during a period of time where national division existed on multiple fronts.

Articulation and the ability to unite forces are two powerful pillars whenever social transformation occurs.  Yet these pillars pale in comparison to Brother Martin’s primary strength, which was to act in a manner that was grounded and rooted in Christ-centered love. Brother Martin’s life produced significant credentials that often cloud out this important trait, but I write today to restate what is sometimes understated. Our loudest voice is love and service. Dr. King was a public figure who drew massive crowds. He was a Nobel Prize Winner, the young man was a regular visitor at the White House and regularly interacted with those of political and positional power. Yet his most vital strength was that he kept love and service at the center!

Dr. King’s reliance upon of love and service as a the means of action was powerfully communicated in his sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.” The sermon was drawn from the 10th chapter of Mark’s Gospel, where a narrative is given about the request of Zebedee’s sons, James and John (also two of the twelve apostles), to Jesus to sit on His right and left hand in the Kingdom.  Their request was genuine, but saturated with selfishness and individual visions of greatness.

Dr. King compared their actions to what he described as The Drum Major Instinct: “a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.” King offers a stinging critique from the sermon: that we are often tempted to respond in judgment to those who express The Drum Major Instinct. The sad reality is that this instinct is in all of us.  This happens, not just during childhood or the immature years of adolescence, but in all ages of the life span.

When I look at our culture, I cannot help but see not only the regularity of desiring individual greatness, but I also see it become an essential characteristic to our social identity. Dr. King adequately captured that “We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.”  What is deceptive and blinding is that our flesh, our sin-broken human condition, is often willing to make any sacrifice in order to achieve “greatness.” We often sacrifice human relationships of love for material gains, abuse our support systems for quantifiable outcomes, kill reputations, ignore the needs of others, ignore a text or phone call, and and a myriad other destructive things in our attempts to be great.

As Christians, our minds quickly rush to judge the worldly, but James and John were a part of the twelve.  More than ever, the Church needs to examine itself (collectively and individually) to see whether we are in the faith or whether we have been blinded by the drum major instinct. The loudness of the Christian faith is not about the prestige of having large buildings, budgets, and bodies.  Neither is the loudness of the Christian faith in our individual accomplishments, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. uttered:

…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. 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, and nothing but a little social club with a thin veneer of religiosity.

The loudness of the Christian faith is commitment to the great commandments of scripture: loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength (Mark 12:30); loving our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39); loving fellow believers the way Christ loved us (John 13:34); becoming great through servanthood (Matthew 20:26).  The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ majors in “Others.”

The way of prestige in God’s economy contrasts those of our sin-stained world. I wasn’t there the day James and John asked to be on the right and left side of Jesus, but I’m persuaded that He gave them a new way of seeing. Dr. King, as a transformative agent of Christ, gave many a new way of seeing:

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.


Dr. Jonathan Blackburn, a native of Buffalo NY has been involved in ministry and advocacy work for nearly fifteen years. He has a wealth of Christian experience, having served as an educator, community developer, speaker and pastor. Jonathan shares this journey with his wife LaDonna, and their four children.