Fifty years ago today, one of the most influential figures of the 20th century – the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — was memorialized and buried.
During a private funeral service (at the request of his widow, Coretta Scott King) his “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon — a prescient reflection on his own funeral — was played on a tape recorder.
The sermon had been delivered two months earlier by Rev. King at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (where the private service was held) .In it, Rev. King verbalized the fact that many people want to be important and aspire for recognition and to be first.
He called the aspiration “the drum major instinct” and proposed a different way to channel that ambition – through a life of service.
Rev. King (perhaps prophetically) concluded his sermon by sharing what he would like to be said about him at his own funeral:
“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize— that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
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.”
As we commemorate and celebrate the legacy of Rev. King, fifty years after his death, may we never forget to honor him daily by practicing the same radical love that he embraced and shared with others.