It’s been almost 54 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his last famous speech, the day before he was assassinated. The speech, titled “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top,” was given in Memphis, TN, on April 3, 1968. And the words he spoke are still true to this day.
One such passage jumps out and still highlights what is still happening in our country today, emphasized in the last couple of years.
“The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding. Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”
How far have we come? Would MLK, Jr. be proud of where we stand as a country – or across the world – at this moment in time?
While as a great leader, MLK, Jr. stood and fought peacefully for freedom and equality for all, he also spoke frequently of another ideal: being of service to his fellow man and community. In one of his other most famous speeches, “Drum Major Instinct,” a speech given just two months prior to his assassination, he talked about a “desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade.” He warned his listeners that the desire for importance could lead to “snobbish exclusivism” and “tragic race prejudice.” He stated, “Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior … and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first.” Yet he also preached that Jesus taught that greatness comes from humble servitude. As King put it, Jesus “reordered priorities,” and told his disciples to “Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love.”
The message was this: the drum major instinct, the desire to lead and be first, can lead people to be oppressive, greedy, cruel and even snobbish. But it can also lead one to do good and serve others.
He believed that both ideals, equality and service, can and should merge together to create the vision he believed we could achieve as a country. We believe this, too.