Dr. King preached a sermon before the home audience, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1968. He was serving as its co-pastor with his father at the time. Titled "The Drum Major Instinct," it was a sermon in which, many say, he seemed to sense his own limited days. It was two months later that he was assassinated. The sermon ends almost allegorically with instructions for his funeral and a eulogy for himself.
"I'd like somebody to mention that day," he instructs, "that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others ... tried to love somebody ... to be right on the war question ... to feed the hungry ... to clothe the naked ... to visit those who were in prison ... to love and serve humanity ... If you want to say I'm a drum major, say I was a drum major for justice ... peace ... and righteousness. All of the other shallow things will not matter." And then he quotes the old hymn, "If I can help somebody":
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.
As Dr. King explains it, "Drum Major Instinct" is the desire to be first, to lead the parade. It desires recognition, importance, attention and being first. He recollects that it is what James and John possessed when they asked Jesus to sit beside him in glory, one at the right and the other at the left. It is a basic human impulse for recognition. Yet, the drum major instinct can turn into a pernicious, dangerous and unharnessed instinct. It can cause one's personality to be distorted. If it isn't harnessed, he warns, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. In other words, your energies are spent propping up your pretentions of privilege.
The consequences of this unharnessed instinct are devastating. The distorted personality -- the one who tells illusory stories about his prosperity -- ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. "And whenever you do that," Dr. King says, "you engage in some of the most vicious activities." The instinct can breed exclusivism. It can become the dangerous force of classism. It leads to tragic race prejudice, the most "tragic expressions of inhumanity." It fosters and uses every means available to buttress arrogant nationalism. It prevents the United States from seeing, as Dr. King says, how we are criminals in our senseless, unjust wars. Ironically, it was his confrontation with the drum major instinct gone bad, settled into white supremacy, economic apartheid and warring nationalism that got him killed.
In the "Drum Major Instinctb" Dr. King doesn't spend much time talking the stories we tell ourselves, the ones that prop up our pretensions to privilege. He doesn't have to. The people at Ebenezer Baptist Church lived them on a daily basis in Atlanta. In the Civil Rights decades, prosperity and power were narrated by race and class. So, too, were poverty and powerlessness. Looking at social data today, it appears that not much has changed since 1968.
This includes the origins of the "Drum Major Instincts" of race and class privilege. The same old stories still feed them. They handed to us by our socio-cultural placements. Through these stories we begin to believe we are important, deserving, meritorious, exemplary and indispensable. On the other hand, through these stories we begin to believe we are unimportant, undeserving, irrelevant and dispensable. Our stories of privilege fashion our social instincts.
Several years ago a commercial aired in Nashville for St. Thomas Health Services that featured former Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher. In this commercial, the most interesting, as well as disturbing, quote from the football expert was: "Life. You get back what you put into it." In other words, you get what you deserve, and apparently a lot of what you deserve is affected by what you get with your birthday suit.
Is this really a good story? In effect, individuals can remove percentages of risk by maintaining healthy bodies and minds, but doctors can never tell a patient absolutely, "Health. You get back what you put into it." Illness does not reward and punish in that way. How many doctors and nurses have treated patients who took care of their bodies and played by healthy diet and exercise rules yet suffered from genetic illnesses, traumas, tragedies or unexplainable disease? The best we can say about health is that it's predictable and unpredictable, logical and absurd, controllable and uncontrollable.
Yet, this kind of story has broad effects on our Drum Major instincts. When health is perceived to be merited, the healthy believe they can neither be moved nor defeated. On the other hand, the sick understand that the rules of life do not guarantee this kind of success. Most insidiously, our value as human beings is determined by things largely out of our control.
This commercial, in my mind, serves as an analogy to the political culture wars being waged this election season. As the Republican debates (the only game in town right now) wear on, the beat of the Drum Majors gets louder. Stories are told about groups of citizens who do and do not merit help surviving the harsh undulations of free market rhythms, both here and abroad. "Let those without health insurance die," goes the line. "Protect the job creators!" Here the Drum Beat has turned into a war beat. Its leaders are the elite in American society, and its foes the "principles and slogans of the victim's revolution" to borrow a phrase from conservative Christian scholar and author Dinesh D'Souza.
The interesting thing about the old hymn "If I Can Help Somebody" is the way Dr. King uses it. "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." He understands very clearly that the last three lines need a context. Without the confession that a Drum Major Instinct can drive exclusivism, classism and racism, this hymn potentially can be very dangerous. The "I" can represent the privileged ego and salvation can be a force that shapes the world according to the false stories of security and privilege. The message can be oppressive and the name of Jesus can be invoked for injustice. It can be a mantra for the powerful to help others look like themselves.
On February 4th, 1968, just about a month before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon from the pulpit of Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The “drum major instinct,” according to King, is the desire for “recognition, importance, and attention.”
Elise Aghazarian, a professor of sociology at Bethlehem University and Palestinian activist
It’s a shorthand way of speaking about the relentless, though perhaps unconscious, desire to “be number one.” While those in the social justice, peacemaking and civil rights movements might assume that King was only addressing the wealthy and the powerful, it would be a mistaken assumption. King, relying upon the psychological studies of Alfred Adler, contends that the desire to “lead the parade,” is a pervasive human tendency.
For King, the “great issue in life is to harness the drum major instinct.” Failure to do so lends itself to a range of debilitating practices, particularly for the nonviolent activist. The unharnessed drum major instinct, for example, fosters a snobbish exclusivity not a welcoming inclusiveness; destructive competition not affirming cooperation; gossip and not meaningful conversation, etc. When properly harnessed, however, the drum major instinct fuels true human greatness: “to be first in love, to be first in moral excellence and to be first in generosity.” Further, there is no “Ph.D.” required for this kind of creative genius; it is a field of study and application open to all. Meditating upon his death, though not knowing how soon that would come to pass, King asked that all of his achievements be forgotten; he simply wanted to be remembered as one who led a life “committed to peace, justice and righteousness.”
During a recent visit to Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town just east of Bethlehem, I met Elise Aghazarian, a young woman professor of sociology at Bethlehem University. In short order, it was quite evident that I was in the presence of someone who, though relatively unknown, embodied the greatness described by King in his sermon. Aghazarian, who is of Armenian and Palestinian descent, spoke to our CODEPINK delegates at a forum sponsored by the Alternative Information Center (AIC). The AIC is a Palestinian-Israeli grassroots organization engaged in the dissemination of information, critical analysis and political advocacy. After the forum, she joined us for lunch.
Aghazarian impressed me with her comportment, intelligence, warmth and passionate interest in her studies. Upon learning of the crushing circumstances forced upon her by the Israeli occupation, I was moved by her resilience and obvious love of life.
This resilience and love of life flowed through the brief talk that she gave at the AIC forum. I have, as much as is possible, reconstructed her talk for those not fortunate enough to have been there upon its hearing and in her presence.
(While Aghazarian spoke, the melodious call of the muezzin, beckoning all to pray—to listen—wafted through an open door, as did the brilliant rays of a mid-morning sun.)
“I would like to give a personal testimony of what it feels like to live under occupation.
I used to go to Birzeit University every day and look right through the window at so many trees. Looking at the trees and the horizon, I often would feel empowered. I could feel these trees often consoling me on the way. That feeling, in time, started changing. I always looked at the horizon and thought there must be a nice future, nice horizons. There are so many dreams I can not touch. There is so much for the future.
In time we were obliged to go down from the bus and be searched. So every day we were searched as being potential terrorists, everyday we have to stop on queues, our stuff had to be searched, we had to be searched, everyday we had to hear, ‘You barbaric Arabs, goyim’, or other words. Then there was a sense of solidarity; we were somehow helping each other.
Gradually there was a one-colored gray wall over there. Every day I would see how the wall was growing up, up, up … We were trying to challenge that, to say ‘No’, to go on demonstrations. We did our best but then one day we were protesting—there is no freedom of opinion—and many people were arrested. We have 11,000 political prisoners
It’s not easy to live under occupation. I think occupation is the degradation of a person’s humanity. It’s being deprived of your past, it’s being deprived of your dreams; it’s being deprived of your present; it’s being deprived of being able to move. It’s being constantly represented by others. You look at the sky and there are Israeli planes, you look at the land, you see it changing, landscape transformation. You don’t know if tomorrow you will see your friends, if your ID card will be revoked.
It’s not easy to live under occupation. It’s having to live with many minimal resources and still thanking God that maybe you’re better off than people in other regions and saying maybe tomorrow will be worse than today, so let me just live today because I don’t know what’s going on. It’s not knowing when the Israeli helicopters will come or when the Israeli tanks will come and for whom. It’s not knowing if you are dangerous or not.
Sometimes you say something simple and you’re viewed as a terrorist. One time I was working on research in Jerusalem and suddenly the Israeli soldiers broke in the office saying we have dangerous documents and we were just doing simple statistics about Jerusalemites.
It’s not easy to live under occupation and it’s not easy being a woman living under occupation. As a woman you already have your personal challenges and then you have also to deal with society and its social pressures. You have to deal with different dominations of your body by different parties, by different groups, by the occupation. It’s seeing your home being threatened by demolition. It’s challenging, both the social and the political pressure.
And then trying to find ways to revolt. My friends and I often despair, we feel that we have no hope. But then somehow you find an inner strength, something mysterious, letting you go on. Maybe the social solidarity helps between socially conscious people.
As a teacher, I look at my students. Last semester, I had a class where there was one girl who was pregnant and she was coming to University every day, challenging her mother, her father-in-law, her husband, leaving her kids at home, crossing a checkpoint, coming from Hebron to Jerusalem just to study. And she wanted to study just because it was her dream. There was one guy who was arrested by the Israeli occupation. He was not simply dealing with the difficulties of being arrested but also his memories of being arrested. Why was he arrested? Because he was distributing brochures of a certain leftist, Marxist persuasion.
There are people who just tell me of their simple dreams. For example, one student was telling me, ‘My dream is to see the sea. My dream is to see the sea. I want to see Jaffa.’ And they can’t see Jaffa. Other students who are at Bethlehem University are just twenty minutes away from Jerusalem; they just want to see Jerusalem, they just want to see the Dome of the Rock and that’s a very simple ride, they live not very far away. Their parents have seen the Dome of the Rock but they can’t. Why? Because they are so-called ‘West Bankers.’ They know because people from outside come and see the Dome of the Rock and see the Holy Sepulcher, but they can’t.
So, I think it’s difficult to live under occupation and yet it is special because everyday you feel you have a challenge. I think resistance is the effort to hold onto your humanity because occupation is a degradation of your humanity. So resistance is trying to be human everyday. It’s trying to challenge all the discourses that are around you on different levels. It’s trying to challenge the desperation. Sometimes you fall down but we Palestinians, we associate ourselves with the phoenix. Sometimes we feel we are dead, but then we feel alive again with more power to go on.
So it’s resistance and it’s connecting to the different people who are resisting even though we can’t sometimes see them. The different people who come in solidarity, like your group. It’s trying to dream, trying to hold on to your daily dreams, despite everything. Even your simple dreams. It’s trying to make the best and think of alternatives everyday. For example, my students, they tell me, ‘Why will we study sociology? Why will we study development? There is nothing, there is no future. Come on, let us admit it’. And I say, but how can we live? How can we make our daily lives better under occupation? How can we look at what is remaining of the existing horizons? How can we look at them and we don’t know what happens tomorrow? But we can try to resist, we can try to be strong despite everything.
And I hope we will continue to have this solidarity together and with other groups and our solidarity with the people of Gaza that we can’t even reach. Our solidarity with the land that’s being fragmented and our effort constantly to work on changing our social and political system toward the better.”
Over lunch, Aghazarian spoke more specifically of “life under occupation.” She brought many of us to tears when she spoke – with dignity and grace – of the travails she endured when trying to buy some chocolate for her students.
She had been sent by the University to a conference in Italy. Her students, hearing that she would miss a few classes because of a conference, in Europe, asked her to bring them some chocolate. Wanting to honor their request, Aghazarian decided that she would arrive at the airport a bit earlier than normal for her return flight home. This would afford her the time she needed to buy the chocolate. She passed through an initial security check quite easily only to encounter an Israeli security force at a second checkpoint within the airport. After reading her passport, she was asked to follow them, which she did—down four flights of stairs to an underground garage-type area. She was interrogated and told to strip down to her bra and underwear so that her clothing could be checked thoroughly. While her clothing was being examined, she was forced to sit clad only in her undergarments.
After about forty minutes, Aghazarian asked that she be allowed to dress so that she might have time to buy the chocolate for her students and still make her flight home. She was allowed to dress but she was to be accompanied by Israeli security to the Duty-Free shop. Upon arrival to the shop, her security escorts informed the clerk that they would choose the chocolate that Aghazarian would buy. She quietly but firmly refused such bullying and chose the chocolate herself. She was then escorted to her plane by the security forces, one of whom sat next to her for the duration of the flight. Mid-way through the flight, when dinner was being served, Aghazarian noticed that only she and a woman next to her had not received a meal. At this point, she cried out that the humiliation she had endured be stopped, that she was not a terrorist, that she was a human being, etc. The response of her security attendant was one of ridicule; he attempted to make it appear to the flight staff that Aghazarian was crazy.
Toward the end of his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, King speaks about what it means to “hold on to one’s humanity.” It means that we are to be on the right side of the war question, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, love other human beings … and, as Aghazarian so beautifully exemplified, buy them chocolate despite everything.