Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.’s “the Drum Major Instinct”

  4:33 pm

“The Drum Major Instinct” - perhaps this and not “I have a dream” - is Martin Luther King Jr.’s greatest speech.

Why? Because in this speech he artfully integrates several topics which are not often combined: religion, psychology, economics, civil rights, the war in Vietnam, and the arms race.

“And if something doesn’t happen to stop this trend, I’m sorely afraid that we won’t be here to talk about Jesus Christ and about God and about brotherhood too many more years. If somebody doesn’t bring an end to this suicidal thrust that we see in the world today, none of us are going to be around, because somebody’s going to make the mistake through our senseless blunderings of dropping a nuclear bomb somewhere. And then another one is going to drop. And don’t let anybody fool you, this can happen within a matter of seconds. They have twenty megaton bombs in Russia right now that can destroy a city as big as New York in three seconds, with everybody wiped away, and every building. And we can do the same thing to Russia and China.

But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct.

‘I must be first, I must be supreme, our nation must rule the world’. And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.

God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now…”

The power of this speech is such that these words written so many years ago still add much needed insight to the situation we find ourselves in today, where the majority of Americans reportedly still support the Aug 6, 1945 decision to detonate a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima. This atrocious civilian attack, regardless of any arguments about whether it hastened the wars end and therefore ’saved’ lives, is by any reasonable definition of terrorism in fact a terrorist attack - for it was indiscriminate murder of civilians for a political objective.

The fact that many Americans still support their own historical use of a weapon of mass destruction sadly shows their opposition to Sadam’s aspirations for WMD in Iraq cannot be understood to based on opposition to WMD in principle, but rather a desire to feel safe and dominant. “Our” WMD are good because ‘we’ are good and ‘we’ trust ourselves to use them wisely. “Their” WMD are the problem because ‘they’ may be bad and cannot be trusted. Unfortunately this simplistic nationalistic us-good they-bad thinking is flawed, unworkable, and policy based on this reasoning doesn’t make anybody safer.

In the Iraq war, “we” are responsible, amoung other things, for starting a war on false pretenses, torture, destabilizing an entire country, thousands of civilian casualties, etc. And at home, “our” society has all sorts of ongoing problems, which from the outsiders perspective certainly weaken our credibility. Consider for example how Iraqis might interpret how corrupt our society must be to have churches where the pedafile priest appears to be not an isolated exception but a recurring pattern.

The “we” that so many feel needs protection also needs to reconsider itself. When FDR said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself", he certainly couldn’t have forseen how our fear of the imagined weapons of a foreign country would lead us to the ethically untenable position of having started a pre-emptive war with no way to end it.

How can a nation extricate itself from a mistake of this magnitude?

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