Interlude: Dr. Kings Drum Major Instinct and the Politics of Ego
One of the most dangerous things to the movement is ego.
If you’re like me, you probably spent some time today scrolling through the endless quotes, think pieces, and social media posts honoring the legacy and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I wouldn’t expect anything less on the national holiday we use to celebrate his birth. Dr. King’s contribution to civil rights, anti-war, and economic justice movements have shaped the way many of us view the world. But on a day that is meant to celebrate his entire legacy and reflect on the ways he spoke truth to power, far too many people focus their energies on his “I Have a Dream Speech” A speech that if we took it for its entirety would be an accurate and sober truth-telling of the state of our nation, but unfortunately has been truncated to push narratives that uphold white supremacy, and an acceptance of systems that hurt Black and Brown people.
Truth be told, Dr. King was and is much more than “I have a dream” and if you truly want to understand the man and have a clear-eyed view of his political analysis, I would suggest you invest some time into reading his actual words. “Where do we go from here” is one of my favorite King books, and I would urge folks to give it a glance. It features King at his most clear-eyed and radical state ever. And despite being written in the ’60s, is disturbingly relevant in today's political landscape.
Along with his deep understanding of the movement, King’s power came from a deep sense of self, a level of self-awareness, and a duty to service that I try to incorporate into my own organizing. Because, as much as the history books will have you believe that movements are driven by “charismatic leaders” the truth is, not only was that false, it was also a dangerous idea, that encouraged the othering of self and the people around you to make one person, usually, a man seem superior to others. That’s why King’s sermon titled the “ Drum Major Instinct” is not only my favorite speech from him but one that we should all listen to.
King's "Drum Major Instinct" sermon, given on 4 February 1968, was an adaptation of the 1952 homily ''Drum-Major Instincts'' by J. Wallace Hamilton.
What is the “Drum Major Instinct?” The Drum Major instinct in King’s speech is the inherent desire to feel important, powerful, or impactful. These desires can show up in peoples' attempt to be seen as influential, either through relationships, affiliations, or the role they play in different movements, or spaces. It’s the person in the room who always needs to speak, or is credited for doing something. It’s the club or membership that positions itself as exclusive, or only for certain people.
What makes this sermon so important to me was that King didn’t bash the Drum Major instinct, instead he pointed out that everyone can or has fallen into its traps, and showing how white supremacy benefits from the worst elements of it saying,
“Now that's a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can't hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out.”
He then provides the framework for how everyday people can use it for good. Urging his congregants to strive to be the most loving, the most committed to justice, and the most committed to service.
I come back to this speech ever so often because it provides the kind of moral clarity and self-assessment that can get lost when you’re in the throes of fighting for social, economic, environmental, and racial justice. Honestly speaking, no matter the space you exist in, if you’re not mindful, the ego can set you or others back. This speech is always a cool and loving reminder to assess how I am showing up. For example,
How many times have I entered a space, personality ablaze, consideration for others absent, and an off-putting sense of “I’m better than you” plastered across my face? How many times have I looked at someone and decided then and there that they weren’t “on my level” how many times had I felt “too good” or “too qualified” for a certain task or project? If we’re being honest, this has happened a lot. As much as I try to fight it, I have been a slave to my ego, shot people down, even silenced them, all for the sake of being right, feeling important, or just being heard, but in those moments of supreme arrogance, I am never concerned with what this does to others, I’m far too drunk on my own bullshit. So as projects fall apart, ideas get stifled, people walk away from the conversation, and the movement struggles, the only thing left remaining is me. Reveling in my own shit, still feeling like the smartest person in the room, with nothing to show for it.
No matter who you are, where you go, what you do, it is important to remember that ego gets us nowhere. Ego causes roadblocks, ego sucks all of the oxygen out of the room, the ego might win a fight, but it doesn’t build sustainability, or help others see their power. And in a movement whose victory can only be achieved through people's power, the ego can be a killer.
I have mastered the art of high ego, space taker, and idea silencer, I’m sure that I could win any competition focused on those skill sets. But as good as they feel, where does that leave me? Where does that leave any of us?
When I took my first step into the fight for social justice, my goal was to reach and empower the kids like me. The ones that we don’t pay attention to. They’re sitting in their rooms, angry and not sure why, frustrated about their circumstances, sure that something is off, but not clear on what it is or how they got here. Those kids feel alone, they fight to live life to the fullest despite a fractured environment. One made incomplete by forces they may not understand. The work that I do is supposed to help change that people's lives. It’s meant to give them the jolt of excitement I felt the first time I read the autobiography of Malcolm x. The sense of Euphoria I had the night Obama won the 2008 presidential election, the power I feel from having the tools to change things. And if I can help change the lives of those kids, the nameless girls and boys all over the country, I can help spark the mind that changes the world.
And that’s when I come back to earth. If my work is about service if it’s for those people if my intention is to transform communities and change lives, how does a petty need to be right, be seen, to have access and accolades do anything for them? It doesn’t.
And if that is the case, I must correct my behavior because what I aspire to do, who I dream to be, and the ideas I hope to put into this world are much bigger than little old me. That’s why I consistently go back to the Drum Major Instinct so that I can be reminded of what is most important.
This is such a powerful piece! Thanks for illustrating the wisdom and stellar exemplar of leadership that Dr. King displayed.