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.”

Martin Luther King Jr: Economic Justice

“What is the job of government? Just to benefit the rich?”

Martin Luther KingThe book, To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice, (W.W. Norton, 2018) came out April 3—the day before the 50-year anniversary of King’s assassination. The author, historian Michael Honey, makes the case in an interview conducted for MLK Day 2019 that ECONOMIC JUSTICE WAS ALWAYS PART OF MLK JR.’S MESSAGE.

I find it strange that some commenters seem to eschew the idea that MLK was an economic warrior. They tend to believe such an idea is the result of revisionist thinking.

As Honey notes, King “said in Memphis: ‘It’s a crime in a rich nation for people to receive starvation wages.’ That remains a basic issue right now across the country, where it seems like the economy is doing really well but there are millions of people—about 40 million people—in poverty.

“Economically, things for poor people and working-class people are probably worse in some ways now than in his time. The unionized, industrial jobs that created the black middle class in places like Memphis are mostly gone…

“King said the best anti-poverty program is a union. Where you can fight for your own agenda—somebody doesn’t have to hand it to you. But you have to be organized to do that. King always supported unions. He gave his life in that cause, in a sense.

“Many workers in this country recognize King as a labor hero. ‘We can get more together than we can apart,’ King said in Memphis. He always said we have a common destiny, and he put it in an economic framework. And we do need that.”

Eliminate Poverty

Also, from Food for the Hungry, 9 Powerful Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes on Eradicating Poverty. The earliest one cited was from 1961. “As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars.” That was in his American Dream speech.

If you want to truly celebrate Martin Luther King Day, support The Poor People’s Campaign, “a national call for moral revival. As Honey said, the PPC “said everybody should have health care, everybody should have a median level of income—not poverty income, a median level of income, such that you can live a normal life. And education, and housing, and jobs at union wages. King thought the role of government is to bring about social justice.

“To those who say it’s not the government’s job, King would ask, Well, what is the job of government? Just to benefit the rich?”

WHY MLK Jr. was targeted for assassination

MLK’s activism took a turn from… “his campaign for civil rights in the American South — to a much more radical one aimed at the war in Vietnam and poverty.”

mlk targetedLast year, around the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, there was an understandable restatement of the facts surrounding the event. And the obvious question addressed who killed MLK.

This TIME magazine article is typical: What We Know About Why James Earl Ray Killed Martin Luther King Jr. “Fifty years later, some questions linger about why exactly the civil rights leader was targeted and whether the shooter acted alone.”

I have no doubt WHY he was targeted: he didn’t “stay in his lane.” The Intercept noted that his activism took a turn from… “his campaign for civil rights in the American South — to a much more radical one aimed at the war in Vietnam and poverty.” As long as the issue involved castigating those Southern white people, all was well with the liberal establishment.

But Martin had the audacity to, first privately, then publicly denounce the war, and by extension Lyndon Johnson, the President who had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

King “labeled the war an ‘enemy of the poor,’ saying that its budget was draining anti-poverty programs; he also pointed out that it was hypocritical for him to preach nonviolence to activists at home, while watching his government reject that principle abroad. But ultimately his stance came from personal moral conviction and his devoted Christian beliefs.”

Sadly, a half century, the issues have not really changed. A recent article in Common Dreams written by by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis – who I saw recently – and Lindsay Koshgarian addresses this.

The title is “Trump Wants to Give 62 Cents of Every Dollar to the Military. That’s Immoral.” Correctly, it notes: “A budget shows our values more clearly than any tweet, campaign speech, or political slogan.”

Standing against that type of immorality got Dr. King killed. He died exactly one year after his speech at Riverside Church in New York City opposing the war in Indochina.

“James Earl Ray, a career criminal who had briefly served in the U.S. Army, shot the advocate of non-violent resistance. Ray was spotted at the scene and, almost immediately after the killing, his fingerprints were found on the gun. Those prints were already among the FBI’s records for wanted individuals.

But just as Mick Jagger sang about who killed the Kennedys, America’s indifference may have slain the civil rights leader. And it may do so to ourselves.

Comfortable vs challenging: Martin Luther King

“The comfortable Martin Luther King Jr. gave only one speech in his life, and we’re required to quote one line from that one speech.”

Martin Luther King removes burnt crossThis TIME magazine piece from January 2018 struck me:

“In 1963, most Americans disapproved of the [August 28 March on Washington] event, many congressmen saw it as potentially seditious, and law enforcement from local police to the FBI monitored it intensively (under code name Operation Steep Hill).

“Indeed, it was after King’s speech… that the FBI — with President Kennedy’s approval — decided to increase their monitoring of the civil rights leader. With the FBI describing King as ‘demagogic’ and ‘the most dangerous… to the Nation… from the standpoint … of national security,” Attorney General Robert Kennedy signed off on intrusive surveillance of his living quarters, offices, phones, and hotel rooms, as well as those of his associates.”

Also from last year, this Folio Media. piece:

“Which Martin Luther King Jr. will we celebrate? There is a comfortable Martin Luther King Jr. and there is a challenging Martin Luther King Jr.

“The comfortable Martin Luther King Jr. gave only one speech in his life, and we’re required to quote one line from that one speech…

“The challenging Martin Luther King Jr. was a relentless critic of American foreign policy, racism and an economic system which left so many destitute…

“The challenging Martin Luther King Jr. makes us uncomfortable in our complacency and asks that we live out the courage of our convictions.

“The comfortable King has a dream. The challenging King knows the dream has yet to be realized and much work is still to be done.

“The comfortable King is the one we celebrate at the expense of the challenging King.”

In remembering that King became beloved by the broader community only after his death, we are called to continue the fight.

And the struggle seems more dire today than in many years, some of which I was certain, a half-century ago would have been largely resolved by now; inequity in education, voting rights, lack of access to health care, environmental challenges… pick your issues.

So in honor of MLK, please DON’T quote that one line, proclaim “We HAVE overcome”, and become blind for all the work there still is to do. You may be dubbed as “radical”; it would put you in good company.

Hope & Fury: MLK, The Movement and The Media

Not only is the promised land he glimpsed still over that mountaintop, the mountain is much higher than any of us could have imagined.

There are uncomfortable parallels between the deaths of Emmett Till and Philando Castile, as the special “Hope & Fury: MLK, The Movement, and The Media” pointed out. The special was broadcast on NBC-TV March 24, but I didn’t get a chance to watch it until a week and a half later.

Emmett Till, who narrator Lester Holt suggested every black person in America knows about – is that true? – was a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago who was visiting his uncle in rural Mississippi. He was lynched on August 28, 1955, after a white woman said that she was offended by him in her family’s grocery store. She has only recently recanted that tale.

Philando Castile was shot and killed by a local Minnesota police officer after the car was pulled over on July 6, 2016, with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter in the vehicle.

In the Till case, it was the decision of Emmett’s mother Mamie to allow, nay, insist on photographers to take pictures of her now-misshapen son. In the Castile case, girlfriend Diamond Reynolds had the wherewithal to livestream ten minutes of video via Facebook.

The MLK special also noted the fickle nature of the mainstream press. It was only the black press that covered some of the seminal stories of the civil rights movement, such as the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955/56.

“When MLK’s peaceful protests aren’t covered by the national media in Albany, Georgia, he organized a children’s march in Birmingham, Alabama, making for some of the most powerful, iconic imagery of the civil rights movement.”

In general, the MSM was attracted if the action included white people – the freedom riders, e.g., or they can establish a clear good guy/bad guy narrative, as in the children’s march, when dogs and fire hoses were unleashed.

“Hope & Fury” pointed out the parallels between the bloody Selma march of March 7, 1965, and the demonstrations occurring after some young black children and men, with the social media-savvy demonstrators willing to challenge the accepted narrative in the latter case.

As Arthur noted: “The USA has so very far to go before achieving Dr. King’s dream. Not only is the promised land he glimpsed still over that mountaintop, the mountain is much higher than any of us could have imagined.”