"If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized — wonderful. If you want to be great — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it: By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve."
These well-known words are from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermon "The Drum Major Instinct," delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Feb. 4, 1968. In his sermon, the Rev. King was explaining that we all start out with the ingrained instinct to be "drum majors": everyone wants to be important, to be first, to lead the parade.
But too many people never outgrow this instinct, the Rev. King said, and by constantly struggling to be the best and most important or wealthiest or best-educated we forget one of the Gospels' and life's largest truths: The real path to greatness is through service.
It's a key lesson to remember, and it's also a key piece of what we should teach our children about the Rev. King. Many of them have just studied the Rev. King's life in school in the days leading up to his birthday, and many young people have learned to see him as a history book hero — a larger-than-life, mythical figure. But it's crucial for them to understand the Rev. King wasn't a superhuman with magical powers — he was a real person.
I first heard the Rev. King speak in person at a Spelman College chapel service during my senior year in college. He was just 31, but he had already gained a national reputation during the successful Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott five years earlier. He became a mentor and friend. Although I do remember him as a great leader and a hero, I also remember him as someone able to admit how often he was afraid and unsure about his next step.
It was his human vulnerability and ability to rise above it that I most remember. He was an ordinary man who made history because he was willing to stand up and serve and make a difference in extraordinary ways as did the legion of other civil rights heroes. We need to teach our children every day that they can and must make a difference, too.
"Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve."
Toward the end of his sermon on "The Drum Major Instinct," the Rev. King told the congregation that like many people, he sometimes thought about his own death and funeral. He said that when the day came, he didn't want people to talk about his Nobel Prize or his degrees or hundreds of awards. The first thing he wanted someone to say about him was "that Martin Luther King Jr., tried to give his life serving others."
The Rev. King didn't know just how soon that day would come. He was assassinated two months to the day after giving that sermon. But a recording of "The Drum Major Instinct" was played at his funeral, and many people think of the moving words in the Rev. King's voice as his own eulogy.
We can honor the Rev. King's legacy best by serving every day and standing together to build a movement to realize his dream — America's dream.
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund.