January 28, 2022

GUEST ROOM | Echoes of the Drum Major for Justice: A Reflection for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2022

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My name is Caleb Smith, and I am a 20-year old African American man who is currently a junior in the ILR School. I am a proud transfer student who came to Cornell by way of Georgia State University, which is located in Atlanta, Georgia — the hometown of the late, great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

I was primarily raised in Macon, a town that sits in the heart of Georgia about 80 miles from Atlanta. While my race, gender and geographical connection to Atlanta give me a feeling of closeness with Dr. King, the strongest thread that links us is our shared belief in Christianity. 

While I’m proud of my commonality with him, I must admit that in the past few years, I have dreaded Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Every year, I see a large crowd of people that misconstrue or co-opt his legacy through ignorant – or deliberate – misunderstanding of what King stood for. For years, I worked to gain more insight into his teachings so I could speak on his legacy. Now that I have those tools, I will finally speak about King’s legacy and how his leadership during the Civil Rights Movement is one of the most notable examples of servant leadership in the modern era.

In his sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” delivered on Feb. 4, 1968, King speaks on the book of Mark, wherein Jesus’ disciples James and John request places at the left and right hand of Jesus in His glory. King describes this request as a manifestation of the drum major instinct, which he defined as “a desire to be out front; a desire to to lead the parade; a desire to be first.” 

Many of us can relate to this instinct through our own lives as Cornellians. We all have plans to educate, enrich and better ourselves through Cornell, changing the world in some way before or after we leave this institution. King then goes on to claim that the drum major instinct can manifest itself as dangerous pride, citing the United States and even the Black community as specific areas where it has been applied negatively. 

I’m sure many fellow Americans and members of the Black community can testify to King’s claim. Our social, economic and political systems are filled with the prideful drive to be recognized as first above all, and this pride manifests itself in the violence, hatred, racism, classism, sexism and oppression that we all live with everyday. 

At the end of this sermon, which would be his last to the congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church, King offered this advice for his future eulogists.

“I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody,” he said. “I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.”

Almost 54 years after his death, I point to this passage as the true legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is an inspiration to multiple generations of African-Americans that have pushed to obtain freedom and address the effects of slavery and racism that the United States of America has championed since its inception. 

Furthermore, his life was and remains a beacon of inspiration for the social justice movements of so many other races and nationalities of people. King actively dreamt of building an international brotherhood of love, and he was assassinated for trying to create unity amongst the people of this country and the world. While his life was not perfect, his legacy stands to this day as a powerful example of servant leadership. 

And so, in closing, I offer a personal challenge to everyone who observes Martin Luther King, Jr. Day:

For the people who claim to love or respect King, serve the world in the way that he did and look to outpace him in service yourself. If you want to honor him, go out and serve consistently and wholeheartedly. Strive to be the first to serve, as you strive to be first in so many other areas of your life. Serve your fellow Cornellians, serve your communities and serve the world with kindness and love, no matter the cost.  As I challenge you, know that I plan to lead by example, and I pray that my actions will speak far louder than any of these words. 

Caleb Smith is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]