Walk with me in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr. 

January 25, 2022

“The Drum Major Instinct” is one of my favorite Martin Luther King, Jr. sermons. It asks, “What does it mean to step forward to lead and serve?” This is especially important for any of us with a burning desire to create a more just, fair, equitable, inclusive, and hopeful society.

So, what is the nature of your own path?

I ask you this at a time when the world can seem upside down. The Omicron variant has deflated our hopes of finally emerging from the Covid-19 scourge. The one-year anniversary of the January 6th insurrection continues to kick-up disagreement and cloud both who we are and who we seek to become as a nation. Acrimony and gridlock in public life dim our sense of belonging and connection, leaving many of us feeling isolated, even alone, right now.

Amid the tumult, I am reminded of King’s beloved sermon about our desire to be in front of the parade, to lead and be recognized. I found myself gravitating toward these ideas all weekend and reached for the sermon to read it, yet again, much like I would a familiar prayer, finding new meaning as I recited the words as if for the first time. I urge you to read it, too.

You may not want to be in front of any parade right now. You may want to step back, find cover, and take time to find your way again. You may feel as if all the noise and confusion in our lives has created a house of mirrors, and you can’t find the door out.

But here’s the thing: I am not asking you to lead the parade. I am making an entreaty to you to walk with us in it. King was clear that the desire to be out front can lead people to be “boastful,” even “lie,” to engage in “activities that are merely used to get attention,” to “push others down in order to push himself up,” for “snobbish exclusivism” and to justify “prejudice.” That is not what any of us want, nor should we seek.

Self-interest will always be a part of us; we cannot wring it out of our nature. But in words and action, we can harness the drum major instinct toward a purpose greater than our individual good.

Instead, at this moment, I am asking you to consider a few questions. No, the fact is that I don’t want you to consider them at all; I want you to engage with them – to open yourself up and let them touch you. Examine your own path. I urge you to do so alone, then find others to talk with.

What do you stand for?

What are your aspirations for your community?

How can you turn outward and get in motion to make good on these, even in small ways? Just name one or two concrete steps you can take.

The world is crying out to us to re-imagine and re-create our communities, this nation, and our own lives. None of us can do this alone; there is no single action that will produce the change we yearn for. But we can join the parade moving in a direction of shared responsibility and create a new trajectory of hope.

Some people might say that my focus on the drum major instinct misses the point in today’s rough-and-tumble world; that our focus should be on winning for a particular cause, electing new leaders, or creating new technology to engage more people. I don’t doubt that these and other matters are important. But I know that if we are not clear on why we’re seeking to lead and serve, we will not reach our aspirations nor fill the breaches that exist in society today.

Self-interest will always be a part of us; we cannot wring it out of our nature. But in words and action, we can harness the drum major instinct toward a purpose greater than our individual good. Let us examine our paths, step forward, join the parade, and keep on marching to a better place. If not you, then who? If not now, when?

Richard C. Harwood is president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization located in Bethesda, MD. He is the author of the bestselling book, Stepping Forward: A Positive, Practical Path to Transform Our Communities and Our Lives and Unleashed: A Proven Way Communities Can Spread Change and Make Hope Real for All.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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