The Drum Major Instinct

I recently visited the Center for Human and Civil Rights in Atlanta, GA.  As the exhibits retell the sobering experience of the Civil Rights movement, much of what I saw was very familiar to me.  I have immense respect and admiration for the sacred stories of our ancestors and each time I hear them, I try and find a new point of inspiration to move forward.  I entered the center feeling very heavy, mostly driven by the recent events of our country.  As I meandered through the building, I stumbled upon the exhibit that illustrated the assassination of one of my personal heroes, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  From the time I could comprehend his story, my mother ensured that I read and watch everything I could find.  From that point on, I began to develop a deep and profound respect for this incredible servant leader.  

As I moved up the stairs to the section that replayed excerpts from his funeral, I decided to sit down and watch the footage.  The voiceover of the footage was Dr. King’s sermon entitled, “The Drum Major Instinct.”  Initially, hearing the sermon, I assumed that I had heard it before, so I didn’t pay attention to the words.  All of a sudden, it seemed, that his words got louder as if tapping me on the shoulder.  They began to shake me.  They began to cause my nerves to vibrate at every utterance of this incredible reminder for all of us that seek to serve.  As soon as I got to my hotel, I began to dissect this inspiring piece of work.

Rev. King charged the congregation to seek greatness, but to do so through service and love.  He put forward the idea that deep down within us, we all want to lead and be out front, just like the drum major of a band. Rev. King also warns us that we must be careful not to fall victim to the pretensions of privilege, titles and accomplishments.  He calls it the “Drum Major Instinct.”  It’s a shorthand way of speaking about the relentless, though perhaps unconscious, desire to be number one. While those in the social justice, peacemaking and civil rights movements might assume that Rev. King was only addressing the wealthy and the powerful, it would be a mistaken assumption.

As an education reformer, I have observed the dialogue shifting from debate to pontification.  I’m guilty of this, and I assume that we all are guilty of this behavior at some point. The most recent example I can point to is the fierce public debate of the appointment of our new Secretary of Education.  At some point, I noticed the message of the movement getting drowned in corrosive political dialogue. I stopped to reflect and ask myself, “how is this serving our kids?”  The fact of the matter is Betsy Devos is in her role, and until she isn’t, we must remain vigilant.  Now more than ever is the time for Ed reformers to decide how we’ll invest our time.  We’ve spent nearly 40 years trying to disrupt the system of inequity that is determined to subjugate the most vulnerable. The current administration cannot undo this work unless WE fall asleep on the job.  We must stand out front and guard our babies with every ounce of ourselves.  We must not fall into the trap of allowing our desire to be heard to be turned into pernicious, dangerous and unharnessed ambitions.  

I’m calling on my fellow ed reformers to properly harness our drum major instinct and allow it to fuel true human greatness: “to be first in love, to be first in moral excellence and to be first in generosity.”  It does, at times, feel as if our progress is being erased by breaking news alerts and executive orders, but Rev. King called on us to lead committed lives.  We cannot get wrapped up in accomplishments and accolades.  We must commit our lives to peace, justice and righteousness.  Only when we do this can Rev. King’s message of inclusivity, humility, and charity be fulfilled.

“Yes, 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. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.”

Let’s model this for our kids, the way Rev. King modeled it for us.