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Finding A Way In Trump’s America Through MLK’s ‘Drum Major Instinct’

Finding A Way In Trump's America Through MLK's ‘Drum Major Instinct’
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
By Erickka Sy Savané via Essence.comWhen it became official that the Electoral College had voted for Donald Trump my stomach dropped. And it’s been dropping every day since. Unfortunately, no amount of protest has changed that. But during times like this, it’s the voices of the great leaders who have come before us that speak the loudest. In this case, Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon, ‘The Drum Major Instinct’ speaks like a light in a dark tunnel.


Dr. King’s ‘Drum Major Instinct’ sermon
It took place at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, 1968. Dr. King began telling a story from the book of St. Mark about James and John and how they asked Jesus if they could sit next to him on the throne. They wanted to be where Jesus was. The other disciples got mad. What had they done to deserve this? Jesus, on the other hand, had a different response.
Dr. King went on to talk about the character trait that would prompt James and John to ask that question of Jesus in the first place. He calls it ‘The Drum Major Instinct,’ and says it’s that innate desire that we all have to lead the parade or be first. Philosophers say it’s the most dominant human impulse. When the instinct goes unharnessed we will put others down so we can be on top.
Dr. King tells a story of being locked up in a Birmingham jail, talking to police officers about race, when the subject of money came up. When the officers revealed how much they were earning Dr. King laughed:

“You ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as Negroes. You have been put in the position of supporting your oppressors, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people too. And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big, when you are so poor you can hardly send your children to school.”

Little has changed. Poor whites think it’s the black and brown population taking away jobs and security when it’s really the one percent. Dr. King also warns of what could happen if China, the U.S. and Russia had a standoff. We’d all go within seconds. Even less has changed. Dr. King goes back to Jesus, James and John.
Jesus tells James and John that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to sit next to him on the throne, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be first. “But you must earn it,” Jesus says. “True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness.” He told them to be first in love, moral excellence, generosity and service. Dr. King finishes with…
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.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.
And I’m encouraged because we’ve been here before, and together we won.
Do you draw inspiration from any of Dr. Martin Luther King’s teachings?
Finding A Way In Trump's America Through MLK's ‘Drum Major Instinct’
Erickka Sy Savané is managing editor of, a wife, mom, and freelance writer based in Jersey, City, NJ. Her work has appeared in,,, and more. When she’s not writing…wait, she’s always writing! Follow her on Twitter, Instagram or


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