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.
For instance, King worries about whether the pursuit of esteem, even in heaven or in the eyes of God, is unchristian. His point of departure is James and John’s request to sit at Jesus’ side in heaven (Mark 10).
Now very quickly, we would automatically condemn James and John, and we would say they were selfish. Why would they make such a selfish request? But before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire to be first. Of course, the other disciples got mad with James and John, and you could understand why, but we must understand that we have some of the same James and John qualities. And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.
King goes on at length to describe the moral, economic, personal, and geo-political dangers of prestige-seeking. But he argues that the “drum major instinct” can be a good thing if yoked to Christian virtues and causes.
[Jesus didn’t condemn James and John]; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”
And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, “Now brethren, I can’t give you greatness. And really, I can’t make you first.” This is what Jesus said to James and John. “You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared.”
King’s standoffish attitude toward honor—that it is at best a conditional good—is thoroughly Christian. The warrior-aristocratic norms we associate with honor were repellent to the original Christian worldview, which prized trust and obedience in God to win battles. Even the pursuit of prestige as a “good” was somewhat foreign to the Christian ethos, since Christianity’s basic message is that we are all God’s children, we all deserve damnation, and that our various excellences are dwarfed into insignificance when compared with God’s. As Christianity struggled with the untamed honor norms of spirited Franks, honor was grudgingly given a place of conditional value, since it channeled pagan energies into the service of the Church. In the cathedral at Chartres, we read:
Most Holy Lord . . . thou who hast permitted on earth the use of the sword to repress the malice of the wicked and defend justice; who for the protection of thy people hast thought to institute the order of chivalry . . . cause thy servant here before thee [a knight], by disposing his heart to goodness, never to use this sword or another to injure anyone unjustly; but let him use it always to defend the Just and the Right.
It is as if King had such pledges to chivalry in mind when he admitted to being a drum major for justice and righteousness.
As Laurie Johnson has shown, for historical and philosophical reasons, liberals are also suspicious of honor, given its connection to elitism, martial virtues, competition, and its preference for prestige over welfare. So the “drum major” inscription—meant quite reasonably to justify the monument’s presence in America’s space of highest distinction—was bound to offend many of MLK’s supporters.
For most partisans of honor, the inscription’s removal will be seen as unfortunate. As Sharon Krause puts it in Liberalism With Honor,
King disrupts the contemporary dichotomy between interests and obligations [which] erroneously forces individuals such as King into the category of self-effacing altruists simply because they display a capacity for great sacrifice in an era in which we have forgotten how to connect sacrifice to personal ambition, or higher purposes to self-concern. Honor, perhaps more than any other quality, combines them.
The self-effacing nature of the heroism we now demand will become quite literal as the “drum major” quote gets sandblasted off MLK’s memorial. For future generations of Americans ambitious for the good, the quote’s removal instructs them to disguise their honor-based motives or, barring that, to redirect their ambition to some cause lacking “moral” significance. The human energy we fail to harness because of this irrational moral commitment is an incalculable loss.