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The Anatomy of the Modern Day Drum Major

By Rev. Joseph Lowery Contributing Columnist | 6/7/2013, 10:06 a.m.

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Rev. Joseph Lowery

On April 9, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached a message that was strikingly applicable to the lives of modern day civil rights leaders and leaders of America’s future.

In the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta only five days before he was assassinated, Dr. King meticulously outlined the anatomy of what he called, the “drum major instinct”. 

In that message, he drew from the book of Mark, Chapter 10, starting with Verse 13 where Jesus’ disciples, James and John, asked to be placed on the Lord’s right side and on his left side in glory. Jesus gave them an answer that resonates today as I contemplate the current state of equality and justice in America and the necessary anatomy of today’s drum major. 

The Lord told them that their placement in glory was not his to give. Rather their placement in glory - and anyone else’s - would be contingent upon how they served here on earth. Specifically, Dr. King quoted the passage as saying, “But whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.” 

Dr. King then described how some in leadership positions mistakenly think that they should be sat on high, receive expensive houses, cars, and receive exclusive access simply because of their positions. But, now, just as Dr. King pointed out then, the anatomy of the drum major - the leader that sets the tempo for justice and equality in America - must be the soul that is willing to humbly serve. 

As then, the drum major instinct has been perverted and must now be corrected in order for us to reach our righteous goals. In other words, as we look at the current state of equality and justice in America, we must refresh our hearts and minds, as Dr. King said, with “a new definition of greatness”. 

What he was saying is that it is not wrong to desire to be important, to want quality things and access. But those things are not equivalent to greatness. Greatness must be earned, he said. And that new definition is simple - service. 

As much work as has been done and as much progress as has been made, there is much work needed as racial disparities in this nation are still horrendous. In a nutshell: 

African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of Whites, according to the NAACP. Yet, the NAACP also reports that five times as many Whites are using drugs as African-Americans, but African-Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.

Economically, according to the U. S. Census Bureau, approximately 30 percent of Blacks are living in poverty. And the racial breakdown of that statistic is riveting.

The National Urban League reports that the total 2013 Equality Index of Black America stands at 71.7 percent. This means that on average, African-Americans enjoy less than three-fourths of the benefits and privileges offered to White Americans.

Educationally, the NUL reports that African-Americans have closed the college enrollment gap at five times the rate of closing the unemployment rate gap. Still the racial disparities are deep. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that though college attendance is steadily rising for people of color, it is only around 14 percent for Blacks, 13 percent for Latinos and 61 percent for Whites.