In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Day

I originally wrote this on January 17, 2011. A few readers had asked if it still existed since it covered more than the usual ground. Thanks to the glorious archive built by the Wizard of Ed, it does and I can share it again today.


Today is the day set aside to celebrate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A day when people can reflect on the fact that, no, we’re not there yet. Even so, I’ve always been more of a Malcolm X kind of guy. When I first stumbled across his autobiography when I was 17, I was stunned. While everyone was aware of the good works of Dr. King, the majority of white America either ignored, or was ignorant of, Malcolm X. I fell into the latter category. His life story of a man who went from street hustling loser to scion of racial divisionism to finally finding out that Allah (God) truly is love and holds no man above another resonated with me deeply. It was the modern version of the story of Saul who became Paul. And while my personal faith may have taken many strange turns through the years, my admiration for him remained constant.

Nevertheless, today is about Dr. King.

Much of the media focus today will be on three short snippets from his life; the bus boycott, the “I have a dream speech” and his assassination, but there was much more to him than that.

If Malcolm X was the modern allegory of the Apostle Paul, then Dr. King was the modern messiah illuminating the road to Damascus. His biography shows that he too suffered at the hands of the world. His family home was bombed, he was arrested numerous times and his followers were endlessly harassed. Yet he held himself above the fray once famously saying to an angry mob, “We must learn to meet hate with love.”

I’m not sure I have that level of self control, but it’s nice to know that it can be attained.

Another thing many people forget about Dr. King is that he was a practical man who espoused real world virtues, not just visionary hopes, to his followers. One speech of his, often relegated to history’s dust bin, is called The Drum Major Instinct. I’m only going to post an excerpt here, but I hope you will take the time to read it all. It clearly shows a man who had a grasp of the world around him as well as the world he wished to be.

Now the presence of the drum major instinct is why so many people are “joiners.” You know, there are some people who just join everything. And it’s really a quest for attention and recognition and importance. And they get names that give them that impression. So you get your groups, and they become the “Grand Patron,” and the little fellow who is henpecked at home needs a chance to be the “Most Worthy of the Most Worthy” of something. It is the drum major impulse and longing that runs the gamut of human life. And so we see it everywhere, this quest for recognition. And we join things, overjoin really, that we think that we will find that recognition in.

Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. (Make it plain) In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. (Yes) That’s the way the advertisers do it.

I got a letter the other day, and it was a new magazine coming out. And it opened up, “Dear Dr. King: As you know, you are on many mailing lists. And you are categorized as highly intelligent, progressive, a lover of the arts and the sciences, and I know you will want to read what I have to say.” Of course I did. After you said all of that and explained me so exactly, of course I wanted to read it. [laughter]

But very seriously, it goes through life; the drum major instinct is real. (Yes) And you know what else it causes to happen? It often causes us to live above our means. (Make it plain) It’s nothing but the drum major instinct. Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income? (Amen) [laughter] You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford. (Make it plain) But it feeds a repressed ego.

You know, economists tell us that your automobile should not cost more than half of your annual income. So if you make an income of five thousand dollars, your car shouldn’t cost more than about twenty-five hundred. That’s just good economics. And if it’s a family of two, and both members of the family make ten thousand dollars, they would have to make out with one car. That would be good economics, although it’s often inconvenient. But so often, haven’t you seen people making five thousand dollars a year and driving a car that costs six thousand? And they wonder why their ends never meet. [laughter] That’s a fact.

Now the economists also say that your house shouldn’t cost—if you’re buying a house, it shouldn’t cost more than twice your income. That’s based on the economy and how you would make ends meet. So, if you have an income of five thousand dollars, it’s kind of difficult in this society. But say it’s a family with an income of ten thousand dollars, the house shouldn’t cost much more than twenty thousand. Well, I’ve seen folk making ten thousand dollars, living in a forty- and fifty-thousand-dollar house. And you know they just barely make it. They get a check every month somewhere, and they owe all of that out before it comes in. Never have anything to put away for rainy days.

But now the problem is, it is the drum major instinct. And you know, you see people over and over again with the drum major instinct taking them over. And they just live their lives trying to outdo the Joneses. (Amen) They got to get this coat because this particular coat is a little better and a little better-looking than Mary’s coat. And I got to drive this car because it’s something about this car that makes my car a little better than my neighbor’s car. (Amen) I know a man who used to live in a thirty-five-thousand-dollar house. And other people started building thirty-five-thousand-dollar houses, so he built a seventy-five-thousand-dollar house. And then somebody else built a seventy-five-thousand-dollar house, and he built a hundred-thousand-dollar house. And I don’t know where he’s going to end up if he’s going to live his life trying to keep up with the Joneses.

There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive. (Make it plain) And that’s where I want to move now. I want to move to the point of saying that if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one’s personality to become distorted. I guess that’s the most damaging aspect of it: what it does to the personality. If it isn’t harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. Have you ever heard people that—you know, and I’m sure you’ve met them—that really become sickening because they just sit up all the time talking about themselves. (Amen) And they just boast and boast and boast, and that’s the person who has not harnessed the drum major instinct.

There’s nothing I can add to that so I’ll leave you to your thoughts.

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