MLK’s “Drum Major Instinct” Sermon

converting people when he’s in jail

Martin Luther King JrI’ve been looking at some documents from The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. There are many pieces, some handwritten notes, telegrams, as well as some audio clips, and the like.

I glommed onto “The Drum Major Instinct.” It is his sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA on February 4, 1968. That was exactly two months before his death in Memphis, TN.

I won’t get into what he meant by the title. You can read that for yourself. But I found this section interesting:

“The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I’m in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem.

“And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it.

“And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, ‘Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] 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. (Yes)


“‘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. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march…'”

“And not only does this thing 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…”

Anyway, you should read the whole thing. Let’s end with this idea from five years earlier in Transformed Nonconformist: “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice peace and brotherhood.”

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