To MLK, Individual Greatness Could Be Found in Attacking Injustice

Justin Rose

Martin Luther King argued that the desire for individual greatness marred US society. But he also believed that desire could be channeled into collective action, with everyone acting as “drum majors” for justice against the “triple evils" of racism, capitalism, and militarism.

For Martin Luther King Jr, serving others was an obligation that we all must undertake to fully flourish.

Interview by
Arvind Dilawar

On February 4, 2018, portions of Martin Luther King Jr’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct” were broadcast to an estimated 103.4 million people. In the sermon, King urged his listeners to channel the desire for distinction in their personal lives into an unrelenting pursuit of justice in the world at large. “Recognize that he who is the greatest among you shall be your servant,” King said. “That’s a new definition of greatness.” Ironically, King’s audience in 2018 received these words over footage of the latest Dodge Ram pickup truck: the automaker had licensed the speech for use in a car commercial during the Super Bowl.

The widely criticized commercial nevertheless captured how King, his life, and his work are frequently wielded today, as depoliticized symbols of goodwill. King himself was more exacting, both in his estimation of the United States and in what must be done to redeem it. Especially toward the end of his life, when the Civil Rights Movement was moving from attacking Southern segregation to striking at North exploitation and the war in Vietnam, King described the intertwined injustices of the United States as racism, materialism, and militarism. To remedy these injustices, he advocated collective action by both blacks and whites, aimed at transforming themselves, one another, and the structures of power.

While King’s political thinking has long been subsumed under calls for charity, renewed interest in his life and work from scholars and organizers is reviving his radical legacy. Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar recently spoke with Justin Rose, author of The Drum Major Instinct: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Theory of Political Service, about King’s distinct conception of political service and how it fit into his vision for social transformation. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Arvind Dilawar

What is the “drum major instinct”?

Justin Rose

The Drum Major Instinct” is the title of one of King’s most important sermons. Its importance stems from the fact that King preached his own eulogy by instructing those mourning him to ensure that he be remembered in death as having dedicated his life to serving others. Eerily, this excerpt of “The Drum Major Instinct” was played during his funeral. Therefore, any discussion about King’s legacy of service requires that we return to “The Drum Major Instinct.”

Doing so, we see that King was making the case that all humans have an instinctive desire to be out front, to garner recognition, and to be distinctive in some form or fashion — something he likens to the drum major of a marching band. King argued that, if left unchecked, this desire can have deleterious effects, including in the form of the “triple evils” that inflict American society: pathological racism, excessive materialism, and destructive militarism.

Despite his misgivings, King also believed that, when properly channeled, the drive for greatness was a useful trait. He called on each of us to redefine greatness by becoming drum majors in the quest for justice, peace, and righteousness.

In doing so, King was not only subverting widely held American and neoliberal definitions of greatness, he was also radicalizing the concept of service. He was calling on all Americans, but especially black Americans, to engage in collective action aimed at transforming themselves, others, and structures of injustice.

Arvind Dilawar

How did Martin Luther King Jr’s conception of political service differ from what is usually passed off as such?

Justin Rose

Service, political or otherwise, is largely viewed as a supererogatory action within American society — that is, it is a good but not an obligatory action. Rarely is service discussed as a duty or an obligation. It has become depoliticized and is mostly associated with individualized acts of volunteerism. For instance, every year during the federal holiday honoring King’s legacy, we get bombarded with images of individuals volunteering at soup kitchens or cleaning up playgrounds, and we are made to believe that this is fulfilling King’s legacy of service.

However, for King, serving others was an obligation that we all must undertake to fully flourish, because structural injustice pervades society. He argued that no member of society can become their full selves if there are structural barriers that unjustly benefit some while burdening others.

The structural interrelatedness of all members of society provided the basis of King’s oft-repeated claim that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King believed that this could only be remedied when individuals came together to engage in collective action aimed at transforming unjust structures.

Arvind Dilawar

What role did collective action play in political service for King?

Justin Rose

Collective action was essential to King’s theory of political service. Structures of injustice could not be transformed by engaging in individualized, discrete actions — one must take the next step of vowing to no longer remain complicit in the system.

On the face of it, this seems straightforward. If you are unjustly benefiting from a system, then you are obligated to transform those structures to achieve a more just society. However, one of the things that my book emphasizes, or reminds people, is that King was largely talking to black audiences. This means King is arguing that even the oppressed are obligated to serve by engaging in collective action aimed at transforming self, others, and structures of injustice.

This is a tough pill to swallow. Why should the oppressed be obligated to transform unjust structures, and not the oppressors? For King, it is a both/and scenario. He is adamant that whites or any people who benefit from structural injustice, including middle-class black Americans, are equally obligated to engage in political service. Yet he is also very clear that the oppressors will never willingly give up their power and privilege without the oppressed collectively challenging their power.


Martin Luther King Jr speaking against the Vietnam War, St Paul Campus, University of Minnesota, on April 27, 1967. (Minnesota Historical Society)

Where King largely differs from proponents of Black Power is in his emphasis on transforming others. While he believes that whites will not willingly give up power, he also firmly believes that blacks cannot fundamentally change American society without white allies. Therefore, King demands that black Americans work to transform their white counterparts along the way.

According to King, as whites are forced to grapple with the ways they are implicated in structures of injustice, they will take the steps to transform themselves and join collectively with blacks in the struggle for a more just society. Even if the number of white Americans who are initially committed to such a cause is small, King declares, “It will take such a small committed minority to work unrelentingly to win the uncommitted majority. Such a group may well transform America’s greatest dilemma into her most glorious opportunity.”

Arvind Dilawar

How did King’s conception of political service change over time?

Justin Rose

King’s theory of political service continued to evolve throughout his engagement in the struggle for civil and human rights. One of the biggest shifts was that King increasingly emphasized the need for black Americans to engage in political organizing as a means of collective action. In the early 1960s, King called on black Americans to engage in creative protests. What King had in mind was mobilizing the masses in the form of a nonviolent protest to draw attention to the plight of the least well-off.

However, by the mid-1960s, King began calling on black Americans to develop action programs. Whereas protests focused on mobilization, action programs centered on organizing black Americans in an effort to accumulate and deploy their political and economic power. King’s shift from creative protests to action programs can be read as his tacit acknowledgment of the limits of mobilization at the expense of organization.

To be clear, I do not think that King fits neatly into either the “mobilizer” or the “organizer” box. Even as King began to place a greater emphasis on organization as a form of political service, he never jettisoned political mobilization. King firmly believed that those who are committed to justice need both weapons at their disposal. In other words, his shift in language signaled not a dichotomy but the continuum between the points of mobilization and organization.

Arvind Dilawar

How did wealth redistribution play into the goals that King had for political service?

Justin Rose

Just as King’s tactics evolved, so, too, did his understanding of the goals of political service. In the book, I talk about King’s use of the story about the Good Samaritan from the Bible. In this parable, Jesus tells of a man who is left for dead by a gang of robbers on the side of the very dangerous Jericho road. Despite the man being on the precipice of death, a priest and a Levite pass him by, pretending not to notice his grave condition. However, the third passerby, a Samaritan, not only shows concern by stopping but also administers aid and ensures that the man’s condition is significantly improved.

In the early 1960s, King used this story to talk about the need for political service, but in this period, he emphasized the ability of the Samaritan to exhibit what King called a “dangerous altruism.” The takeaway is that the Samaritan was great because he was able to rise above his fears, transform himself, and transform the condition of the person in need. This was, and remains, an important lesson for black and white Americans alike, especially as it challenges us to set aside our fears and our racist beliefs to work to improve the conditions of others. But it must be acknowledged that the goal is to aid someone within a structurally unjust system. For instance, one can give to charity and improve someone’s life without fundamentally transforming the system.

By the mid-1960s, King began to use the parable very differently. His conception of service had evolved to represent more than merely performing a supererogatory act of kindness; it also required the transformation of structures of injustice. King declared, “One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.” Whereas in the original biblical story the Jericho road was the setting for a chance encounter that enabled the Samaritan to aid the man in need, in this passage, the Jericho road has become the cause of the man’s need. In other words, King converted the Jericho road into the unjust structures that allow some to travel life’s road relatively unencumbered while others are more constrained.

To King’s mind, the lesson at the heart of the good Samaritan parable was this: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Here, King was very explicitly rejecting any attempt to equate political service with the privileged giving handouts to the less fortunate. Instead, he was demanding that we redistribute wealth and property as a means of restructuring the edifice that creates poverty.