Today we commemorate the birth of one of America’s greatest heroes—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It took 15 years to establish the federal holiday, with the charge to pass the holiday bill being led by Rep. John Conyers Jr. Opposition to the holiday bill cited Dr. King was not important enough to have his own holiday, albeit his extensive leadership in the civil rights’ movement. Today, we might think these critics were crazy, but after reading the last sermon he ever delivered, titled “Drum Major Instinct,” I am convinced his grace and humility would have compelled him to disagree with the celebration of his birth date (January 15) as a national holiday, too.
The premise of his sermon is we all have a tendency to seek praise, recognition, and distinction. But Dr. King preaches a different definition of greatness, unlike the kind many of us are used to:
“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.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by 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.”
Sadly, no discussion about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is ever complete without recalling the way his life was tragically cut short on April 4, 1968. And in this particular sermon, he speaks prophetically of his death that would come exactly two months later.
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school…
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.
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
In his life, he showed us how to courageously pursue a more just world, regardless of personal sacrifice or consequence. Although Dr. King was part of a greater civil rights movement, his leadership and personality was vital to the movement’s success, and he is a large part of the reason why we now celebrate the gift of diversity in our beautiful country with an African-American president, three female Supreme Court justices, and a Muslim U.S. Representative. And in his death, Dr. King reminds us of that we should not lament the evanescence of life, but instead, let that drive us to lead a life overflowing with compassion, generosity, and love.