Special report: Quoting King!

PART 2—WHAT DR. KING SAID: Has Dr. King been misquoted, or paraphrased badly, at the new King memorial? If he has, will the quote be amended?

Those questions will be answered in time. Last week, as this debate began, we were most surprised by the press corps’ conduct (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/6/11). In particular, we were struck by the fact that the Washington Post actually knows a bad quotation when it sees one! On Friday, we’ll review the press corps’ failure to exercise such important skills in the recent past.

For today, let’s treat ourselves to one of Dr. King’s sermons from long ago. Let’s review the sermon a reporter looked up when she thought that something was odd about a quote at the new King memorial.

Rachel Manteuffel thought something was odd about one of the memorial's featured quotations. When she went home, she looked the quote up. As a result, she ended up reading Dr. King’s sermon from February 4, 1968, “The Drum Major Instinct.” To read it yourself, just click here.

By happenstance, that sermon contains our favorite quotation from Dr. King. The things that Dr. King said that day are well worth reviewing today. We’ll touch on just a few of the many topics he covered.

What did Dr. King mean by “the “drum major instinct?” “We all have the drum major instinct,” he said as he started. “We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.”

This instinct can lead us wrong, Dr. King said—or it can lead us to service. Midway through his sermon, Dr. King discussed one of the (many) ways this instinct can lead us astray. In parentheses, we include the responses from his audience:
DR. KING (2/4/68): Now the other problem is, when you don't harness the drum major instinct—this uncontrolled aspect of it—is that it leads to snobbish exclusivism. It leads to snobbish exclusivism. (Make it plain!) And you know, this is the danger of social clubs and fraternities—

I'm in a fraternity; I'm in two or three—for sororities and all of these, I'm not talking against them. I'm saying it's the danger. The danger is that they can become forces of classism and exclusivism where somehow you get a degree of satisfaction because you are in something exclusive. And that's fulfilling something, you know—that I'm in this fraternity, and it's the best fraternity in the world, and everybody can't get in this fraternity. So it ends up, you know, a very exclusive kind of thing.
Dr. King warned his listeners this day against the danger of “snobbish exclusivism.” As he continued, he warned that this can even occur within the church:
DR. KING (continuing directly): And you know, that can happen with the church; I know churches get in that bind sometimes. (Amen! Make it plain!) I've been to churches, you know, and they say, "We have so many doctors, and so many school teachers, and so many lawyers, and so many businessmen in our church." And that's fine, because doctors need to go to church, and lawyers, and businessmen, teachers—they ought to be in church. But they say that—even the preacher sometimes will go all through that—they say that as if the other people don't count. (Amen!)

And the church is the one place where a doctor ought to forget that he's a doctor. The church is the one place where a Ph.D. ought to forget that he's a Ph.D. (Yes!) The church is the one place that the school teacher ought to forget the degree she has behind her name. The church is the one place where the lawyer ought to forget that he's a lawyer. And any church that violates the "whosoever will, let him come" doctrine is a dead, cold church, (Yes!) and nothing but a little social club with a thin veneer of religiosity.


The drum major instinct can lead to exclusivism in one's thinking and can lead one to feel that because he has some training, he's a little better than that person who doesn't have it. Or because he has some economic security, that he's a little better than that person who doesn't have it. And that's the uncontrolled, perverted use of the drum major instinct.
Dr. King never forgot that he was working on behalf of people who hadn’t always been allowed to reach the higher rungs of the ladder. He warned that, even within the black community, that drum major instinct might lead the few to look down on the many. We suppose that could even happen within the progressive community today. (One possible example: When professors suggest that high-ranking actresses embarrass themselves playing maids.)

Jesus rejected this form of the drum major instinct, Dr. King said near the end of his sermon. According to Dr. King, Jesus “transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness.” Personally, we don’t have religious beliefs ourselves. But this led to our own favorite passage from Dr. King’s vast body of work:
DR. KING: By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great (Everybody!) because everybody can serve. (Amen!) You don't have to have a college degree to serve. (All right!) You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen!) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir! Amen!) a soul generated by love.
There is a great deal more in that sermon—a sermon in which Dr. King told his listeners that they mustn’t succumb to snobbish exclusivism. But uh-oh! At one point, Dr. King spoke in a way we liberals have recently mocked:
DR. KING: But God has a way of even putting nations in their place. (Amen!) The God that I worship has a way of saying, "Don't play with me." (Yes!) He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, "Don’t play with me, Israel. Don't play with me, Babylon. (Yes!) Be still and know that I'm God. And if you don't stop your reckless course, I'll rise up and break the backbone of your power." (Yes!) And that can happen to America. (Yes!) Every now and then I go back and read Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening.
Dr. King was discussing the Vietnam war. In the process, he spoke in a way many Americans do. Recently, many liberals mocked a silly conservative rube who spoke in much the same way Dr. King did. For our money, that’s shaky politics.

Dr. King discussed many topics that day—American racism, the war in Vietnam, the wages of working-class whites in the south. One part of that sermon has now been adapted for use at the new King memorial.

We agree with those who have said that the adaptation may, on balance, be ill-advised. But Dr. King said many things in that sermon that are well worth pondering, right to this very day. In what ways can modern porgressives learn from Dr. King's methods?

Tomorrow: Who the heck picked out the quote?


  1. Especially given the way power works, it seems to me that progressive will never advance until we learn how to talk to middle- and working-class people who may not share our tribal allegiances.

    Power is ripping everyone off. As it does, thewarring tribes of the ripped-off keep arguing with each other, often over pure BS (not always). There's no path to victory there.

  2. Bob Somerby:

    You write

    "it seems to me that progressive will never advance until we learn how to talk to middle- and working-class people who may not share our tribal allegiances"

    , and that's absolutely correct.

    The thing is, though, that we movement liberals need to learn to do more than talk to our fellow Americans, we need to learn to see them first as our fellow Americans, and not as the caricatures that partisans and establishment liberals offer up for our tribal consumption every day.

    Since you're quoting King, I'll reach for something a little less lofty that speaks to movement liberals' need to do a lot more of what you and I (and a lot of us out here) are talking about: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqpNI4232qg

  3. Woo hoo! Thanks for changing your site, and for the inclusion of comments!

  4. Yeah, the adaptation makes it sound like King thought that being a drum major was a good thing, when it might not be. It converts his qualifying language into a declarative sentence.

    They should have just left out the "I." Which they'll probably end up doing, somehow-- it'd be an easy fix. But even then it defines him in a way that he was warning us about.

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