The fiftieth anniversary of one of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s great sermons, “The Drum Major Instinct,” passed largely unnoticed, except by the car company Dodge. They bought time during the Super Bowl to mark the occasion by suggesting that King wants you to buy their Ram trucks.
The commercial contained this excerpt from Dr. King’s sermon:
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 giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve … [taken out here is that you don’t need a college degree or to be able to make your subject and verb agree] … You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know the 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.
What is missed in this snippet is that the sermon it comes from includes a sharp criticism of our susceptibility to advertising as fueling self-centeredness and insecurity. Someone quickly and brilliantly took an excerpt of that part of the sermon and overlaid it on the same footage:
Here is the sermon excerpt it used:
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. 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 … 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 … 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.
This revised version shows that King critiques not only advertising, but the kind of materialism that drives the consumption of cars as markers of status.
I appreciate when what is hard to pin down is made explicit. The sale of the legacy of King to legitimate consumerism and materialism is not new. And these transactions have always had to rely on proof-texting, carefully excerpting what characterizes King as moderate and amenable to the status quo while ignoring the larger body of evidence to the contrary.
Ram’s description of their commercial explains, “In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ram truck owners also believe in a life of serving others,” suggesting that buying their truck makes it true. The alternative version of the commercial makes it clear that King’s sermon is not saying that we are part of a spirit of serving others when we buy a particular truck, and that we should not believe advertisers who tell us we are better people if we do so.
But what is King saying it means serve others? One could argue that, apart from the sales pitch, the commercial’s images depict types of service: teachers, soldiers, ranchers, fisherpeople, laborers, people rescuing dogs, people rescuing old churches, another soldier, people cleaning up from natural disasters, more soldiers, someone handing out turkeys in the rain (why are they outside?), an ultrasound technician, a football team, a military parent, a new parent, and a truck that’s “built to serve.” It is a dense narrative, blessed by King through the purchase of copyright.
King’s primary example of serving others in the “Drum Major Instinct” sermon is the life and ministry of Jesus:
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a poor peasant woman. And then he grew up in still another obscure village … He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. They called him a rabble-rouser. They called him a troublemaker. They said he was an agitator. He practiced civil disobedience; he broke injunctions.
King also reflects on the type of service he wants to be remembered for (not knowing he would be assassinated exactly two months later):
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question … I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry … I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison … If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind … But I just want to leave a committed life behind.
King is not telling his congregation not to buy the things they need or that simple living solves systemic problems. His assessment of materialism is deeper. King talks about consumerism because he is examining the barriers to our commitment to social transformation. To serve others is to live life committed to changing the triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism. King talks about consumerism as driving inequality and fueling self-centeredness. He talks about racism as using ego to divide the poor against their own unity and shared interests. And he talks about war as rooted in a dangerous nationalism that drives the U.S. to “engage in a senseless, unjust war.” King says directly, “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.”
So no, King was not blessing war as service to others. He preached about ending a war that pitted the poor against each other at home and abroad.
King was not talking about handing out turkeys in the rain. He preached about the poor taking action together to end hunger.
And King was not talking about racially inclusive advertising. He preached about ending systemic racism, including through poor whites taking action with poor people of color across racial lines to refuse being “forced to support [their] oppressors” in exchange for “the false feeling that [they’re] superior” when they “can’t hardly eat and make [their] ends meet week in and week out.”
This is why King’s sermon came in the midst of his effort to organize a Poor People’s Campaign, drawing together the poor from across the country and across lines of division to take action together.
A life of service and commitment is certainly not buying a particular car, but it is also not charity, militarism or superficial multiculturalism. A life of service is not lawfulness in the face of unjust laws. It sometimes requires rabble-rousing, troublemaking, civil disobedience and injunction breaking. This is the life of service King chose, and it is a life that led to his assassination. Harnessing the drum major instinct is not shying away from leadership when it is called for. It is not a retreat to the personal apart from the systemic. It is instead taking up with each other the task of solving the defining problems of our era. We are called to this life of service today.
The day after Dodge Ram claimed King, a very different remembering began to take shape. In over thirty states across the nation, people came together as the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. We delivered letters in our state capitols calling for a “moral agenda that lifts up the common good and the general welfare.” We committed to the belief that, like Jesus and King, our service to others might need to include taking direct action together and engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience. Linking together the problems of our day and our responsibility to serve others by transforming them, Campaign co-chair Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis proclaimed,
The linked evils of voter suppression laws, mass incarceration, bloated military spending and a lack of access to clean air and water require everyone who believes in justice to come together. Our movement is breaking down barriers by uniting poor and marginalized people, moral leaders and people of all backgrounds to fight for a common moral agenda.
Truly hearing King and the many leaders who took up the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, together we are finding the strength to be drum majors not for our own advancement, but for love, justice, peace, and the common good.