The Drum Major Instinct: He That Is Greatest Among You Shall Be Your Servant

The Drum Major Instinct: He That Is Greatest Among You Shall Be Your Servant

When you hear the words, “a great individual” what attributes come to your mind?

Here’s what came to my mind: A person who is intelligent, have clout, wealthy, graduated from a prestigious college, and one’s whose life just seem to be all figured out. And I believe that the people who possess these things are the only ones in the position to contribute to society.

But...that was my old mindset - thank God for growth. That way of thinking changed after I heard Martin Luther King Jr. sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct.”  When he said:

“ giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.  And you can be that servant.”

That part set my soul on fire, and it made me take a second look at the individuals that I and our world consider great. But let’s backtrack a little so that I can give you what MLK believes is the “real” definition of greatness.

He opened his sermon by telling the congregation about how James and John went to Jesus asking him can they sit at the left and right hand of his throne. Why did they make this request? 

“They had dreamed, as most of the Hebrews dreamed, of a coming king of Israel who would set Jerusalem free and establish his kingdom on Mount Zion, and in righteousness rule the world. And they thought of Jesus as this kind of king.”

Jesus replied to them and basically said, “ Do y’all think y’all can handle what comes with what y’all are asking for? They were like, “Yeah.” And Jesus was like, Okay! cool. “But to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared.” And then Jesus goes on toward the end of that passage to say, "But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all."

MLK continues by understandably saying that, some of us would condemn James and John (as the other disciples did) for making a selfish request. He’s right because I’m thinking to myself, “Who do they think they are, or what have they done that gives them the right to ask Jesus that?”

But MLK shut what I was thinking all the way down by explaining that we all have some of the same qualities as James and John:  “And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It's a kind of 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.”

Before he took us through some of those “Drum Major Instinct” qualities he briefly stated that when we come out of our mother’s womb crying, we’re asking life to put us first, asking for attention, and we seek it throughout our childhood.

And it doesn’t stop there, the Drum Major Instinct carries over into our adulthood and if you’re saying to yourself, “I don’t have this instinct.” MLK thinks you’re fooling yourself and said: “ just go on living life, and you will discover very soon that you like to be praised. Everybody likes it, as a matter of fact. And somehow this warm glow we feel when we are praised or when our name is in print is something of the vitamin A to our ego. Nobody is unhappy when they are praised, even if they know they don't deserve it and even if they don't believe it.”

Now to those Drum Major qualities that MLK believes causes one to:

Live above our means

“Do you ever see people buy cars that they can't even begin to buy in terms of their income? You've seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don't earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford.  But it feeds a repressed ego.”

He said a “REPRESSED EGO.” Whew, my god!

MLK must be an active instagram user up there in Heaven because he made that statement in 1964, and it is just as true in 2018. Not only do I know and see people buying cars that they know they can not afford they also take trips, buy shoes, clothes, phones, televisions, take on unnecessary bills, move in houses/apartments, and eat  at restaurants that they know will hurt their bank account. Sadly, most people do this to not only feed that repressed ego, but to prove to others that they can live a certain lifestyle too. I don’t blame them, though; I blame the mentality of our society.

I was one of those people. I remember back in 2014 I purchased some Nike “Air Force 1s” that I knew I couldn’t afford. I had the money to buy them, but I couldn’t afford them. I think I had just enough for the shoes. if I would’ve purchased them my bank account would be at $0.00. You know what I did? I bought them. Why? Other than the fact that I liked them, in retrospect, I did so just to show other people that I had them and to post them on Instagram. I’ve probably only worn those shoes maybe four or five times. Thank God for growth.

MLK contended that if the Drum Major Instinct isn’t harnessed it can become destructive, which can cause.. 

One's personality to become distorted

“ 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.”

MLK seemed over it!  

It also causes an individual to lie about who they know sometimes. You know those people who lie about who they know to make themselves look good? Yeah, them. It causes one to engage ultimately in activities that are merely used to get attention. “They don't feel that they are getting enough attention through the normal channels of social behavior, and so they turn to antisocial behavior in order to get attention, in order to feel important.” Finally, which is the the greatest tradgedy the distorted personality, it causes one to push others down in order to push oneself up.  We all know or knew a person (or maybe yourself) who lie on and talk about the next person to make themselves look good. In reality it only makes them look worse. 

Snobbish exclusivism 

Not speaking against them he used fraternities (he was in a fraternity), and church(es) as his examples. He explained that there is danger in these social clubs and fraternities because they can become forces of classism and exclusivism. And when one is  in these frats they may start to think that they’re all high and mighty, and begin to have contempt towards others that aren’t in it.  

Then he went on to talk about how some of  the churches (the people and pastor) he visited bragged about having, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and school teachers attend their church. MLK said all that is fine, they need church too, but he was baffled because they said all of that as if the other members don’t matter. 

He said the church is the one place where a Ph.D. ought to forget that he's a Ph.D, the school teacher ought to forget the degree she has behind her name, and the lawyer ought to forget that he's a lawyer.

“It's the one place where everybody should be the same, standing before a common master and savior.” 

This same snobbish exclusivism can exist in one’s thinking as well. How? You know that person(s) who believe that they are better than the next person just because they live in certain a neighborhood, in a different tax bracket, and have a better job? Yeah, them.  

Also, according to MLK the Drum Major Instinct leads to 

Tragic race prejudice

“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.”

To make sense of his assertion MLK told a brief story about a time when he was in jail, and how he’d have conversations with the white wardens about the race problem. They calmly went back and forth about segregation, intermarriage, and protesting. He said on about the second or third day they (the wardens and jailers) were talking about how much they were earning, and where they lived. MLK said when he found out how much they were earning he told them: 

“Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You're just as poor as Negroes." And I said, "You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white.” 

His words reminded me of that Bill Maher episode when journalist and filmmaker, Alexander Pelosi visited Mississippi - the poorest and most conservative state in America. 

At one point in the video a white man with “I’m Proud To Be White” printed on his leather vest told Alexander, “Yeah! I’m a little prejudice.”

She asked him, “You don’t like black People?” he responded, “Not Much.” She asked, “Why not?” He answered, “I just don’t.” 

Back to MLK

He believed that the Drum Major mentality also apply to the conflicts between our 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.”

 ** coughs “Make America Great Again” **coughs** 

Need I say more?  Okay, I’m not. Let’s move on.

MLK concluded his sermon by saying that many would have thought that Jesus would have condemned James and John for making their request - to sit at his left and right hand. But he said that Jesus encouraged them not to give up their Drum Major Instinct, because if it’s harnessed right it’s a good instinct to have.

“It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. 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." 

Jesus also told James and John that he can’t give them greatness or make them first - it has to be earned. And that real greatness doesn’t come from nepotism, but by those who are best fit and prepared. 

 “And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness.” 


By this definition of greatness who are some individuals you consider great? 

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