Fifty-four years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a prophetic sermon he called the The Drum Major Instinct. He riffed off a passage in the New Testament where Jesus’ disciples got mad at him because they wanted to be credentialed leaders, to be praised for their importance, the “drum major instinct”. In the 1940s the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, wrote in the Twelve Steps that this desire for an important place in society, the “social” instinct, is necessary for community survival. Both men cautioned that this natural god-given instinct, unbridled, can turn on us, become an obsession for power and supremacy and eventually distort our personalities.
I know a bit about the desire for attention. During these pandemic shutdown months, online Zoom meetings have become the stage and meeting room for events. Last year I was the featured speaker in one square among nearly three hundred muted souls on Zoom. At the end all I heard was thank you from the host. People wrote kindly in the Chat but I still wish I had heard that applause. My book, In That Number, was published in October 2020 and the enthusiasm I needed to promote it waned, due to—you got it—no applause.
Donald Trump heard a lot of applause throughout his entire presidency, even during the months most of us were silent following the stay-at-home orders of Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force leaders. Whew! Trump’s drum-major instinct rampaged so out of control that he still says the Democrats stole the election he lost to Joe Biden.
MLK: “… the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up…by spreading evil, vicious, lying gossip on people…”
Trump spread evil, vicious lies to his duped white followers continually until they finally exploded into a blood-and-guts frenzy on January 6, 2021. They sacked the US Capitol in an effort to thwart the official declaration of the election results. People died. Martin Luther King, Jr. nailed this aberrant behavior in a prescient accusation: his drum-major instinct makes him think he is somebody big because he is white.
MLK and Bill Wilson remind us we all have the drum-major instinct. We all want the admiration of others. They caution us to keep it in check, to watch out we don’t let our drum-major emotions go awry, that we don’t act superior to others. I confess I do feel and act superior to the insurrectionists, the white fundamentalists, the angry male mob who sieged the Capitol. I condemn them in conversation, even post condemnations on social media. Experience tells me if I don’t stop, I’ll soon be in a full blown mire of self-loathing, questioning how I got there. King and Wilson both offer an ancient solution to keep my own potential soul-sick personality at bay. Love and service. Be a drum major for love. Help others.
I’m open to it. That’s the best I can do today.
(originally published MLK Jr. Day 2021)
The Drum Major Instinct,” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr., February 4, 1968, Atlanta, Ga. Listen Here: http://okra.stanford.edu/media/audio/DrumMajorInstinct.mp3