Voices of Simmons

Honoring the Legacy of Dr. King

A message from President Lynn Perry Wooten

It is my honor to write today as we mark the ninety-third birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As I reflect upon Dr. King’s legacy, I am reminded of his keen understanding that the quest for social justice requires each of us to commit to the hard work of furthering change.

Dr. King speaks eloquently about this idea in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. Though it is not often remembered among his most iconic and well-known addresses, these powerful remarks are one of Dr. King’s “finest sermons and perhaps his most haunting,” as The Atlantic notes.

Dr. King delivered the sermon on February 4, 1968 – exactly two months before his assassination. In it, Dr. King talked about the “drum major instinct” – the very natural human desire for recognition, the urge “to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction.” During his remarks, Dr. King challenged his congregation to rethink their definition of greatness so that individuals aspire to be first in the qualities that truly matter – those such as love, generosity, and service. When we view greatness through this lens, something powerful happens, because as Dr. King said, “everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.”

When people ask me about Dr. King’s legacy today, I encourage them to read – or better yet, listen to – his Drum Major speech. And then I ask them to consider what each of us can do, individually, and collectively, to be a drum major through a concept I call everyday leadership.

Everyday leadership is the act of utilizing individual strengths and passions to drive meaningful change. Everyday leaders embrace a life of learning and service, and they utilize their talents to make the world better. Dr. King, who crafted a life and career that leveraged his public speaking talents to strengthen our communities, embodied this concept.

Everyday leaders are everyday drum majors, and they are needed now perhaps more than ever before. Our communities face a variety of challenges – not only when it comes to the pandemic, but also in more entrenched health, education, and economic disparities that continue to impact too many children and families around the nation.

Dr. King’s broad vision of a just world focused on this critical intersection of racial, economic, social, and health issues. His belief in our ability to fight these inequities was not only at the heart of his Drum Major sermon, but a key focus of his life’s work.

At the end of his Drum Major sermon, Dr. King reflected on his own mortality and explained how he would like people to remember him.

He said, “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. …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.”

It is both empowering and intimidating to realize that each of us – in our own way – can utilize our strengths to be drum majors. As president of Simmons, I have the privilege of witnessing our community doing this daily through their commitment to leverage their learning, scholarship, research, work, and service to fight inequities and advance social justice. Despite our challenges, I am optimistic about what we can accomplish when we act as drum majors together.

Photo credit: What Should An MLK Memorial In Boston Look Like? (WBUR)

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