The New MLK Memorial and Our Dirty Politics

Yesterday’s opening of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is a poignant reminder of how we must engage to re-shape our nasty politics and public life. On the side of the memorial is this inscription: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” At issue is how we take these words in and live them especially at a time when our politics are so distasteful and sorely lacking in a sense of possibility. This line is from one of my favorite King sermons, “The Drum Major Instinct.” It asks, “What does it mean to step forward to lead and serve?” This is especially important for any of us with a burning desire to create change in society. So, what is the nature of your own path to lead and serve? And what is the path we find our politics and public life on today and how can we and others help shape that?

I have selected a few lines from the sermon for you to consider. No, the fact is that I really don’t want you to “consider” them at all; I want you to engage with them – to open yourself up and let them touch you. I urge you to do so alone; then maybe find a partner or two to sit with and together examine your responses. Do this – all it takes is 20 minutes; it’s really worth the time.

So here are three segments from The Drum Major Instinct and some questions I’ve posed to each of us:

1. “…deep down within all of us [is] 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.” Is that true for you? If so, what’s motivating you?

2. “I guess that’s the most damaging aspect of it: what it does to the personality.” King said the desire to be out front can lead people to be “boastful,” even “lie,” to engage in “activities that are merely used to get attention,” to “push others down in order to push himself up,” for “snobbish exclusivism” and to justify “prejudice.” What does the desire to be out in front of the parade do to you? What damaging aspects can you identify within yourself?

3. “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice… for peace… for righteousness.” So said King about himself; list three things why you’re a drum major—and don’t worry, they can be big or small.

Some people might say that my own desire to focus on the Drum Major Instinct misses the point in today’s rough-and-tumble world. Our focus should be on winning in partisan politics and destroying our opponents.

But what King taught us is that there is a different way to lead – a different call we must answer. As he said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” Well, what “light” are we bringing to politics and public life? How are we illuminating the real issues and concerns among people? How does our own rhetoric add further to the negativity and closing down of room in the public square to engage with others?

None of us alone may be able to re-shape our current negative public conditions; but, surely, each of us can play a role. On this day, the day after the MLK Memorial opening, let’s figure out how we want to help lead the parade.

Please post your responses below so we can all share them, reflect on them, and support one another.

This post is adapted from my 2007 MLK Day posting, and was used at our August 2007Annual Public Innovators Summit.