The new MLK memorial on the National Mall will be modified in the upcoming months. It currently has an inscription reading, “I WAS A DRUM MAJOR FOR JUSTICE PEACE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS.” The passage has been criticized by some of King’s descendants and custodians of his memory as sounding vain. They point to the actual sermon this quote came from, in which King outlines how he’d like to be remembered at his funeral:
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.
In talking about a “drum major,” King is referencing a 1952 sermon by a white, liberal Methodist preacher named J. Wallace Hamilton called “Drum Major Instincts.” King liked the tag for what he apparently thought was an innate drive for recognition and glory.
You can find King’s sermon (in text and audio form) here. It is quite good, and raises some interesting points for honor research.