Martin Luther King Jr. on Making America Great AgainRoundup
tags: Martin Luther King, African American history, political history, holidays
Justin Rose is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Director of the Africana Studies Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. His book, The Drum Major Instinct: Martin Luther King, Jr’s Theory of Political Service (University of Georgia Press, 2019) explores how King transformed the Christian notion of service into a politically salient concept.
On February 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the congregation of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and preached his final sermon—“The Drum Major Instinct.” Ominously, King admitted that he occasionally thought about “life’s final common denominator—that something we call death.” King, sensing that his days were numbered, went on to soberly dictate how he wished to be memorialized at the time of his death. He specifically forbade those who survived him from mentioning his Nobel Peace Prize or other superficial markers of success. Instead, he instructed those in attendance to only highlight the one thing he viewed as his singular accomplishment: “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others…I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”
As a Christian minister, King summarized his life in this manner, because he firmly believed that, “Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. 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.” According to King, Jesus taught that the drive to be great is an admirable instinct when greatness is evaluated by how much one serves others. Armed with Jesus’s precept, King called upon his parishioners to redefine greatness by becoming drum majors in the quest for justice, peace and righteousness.Today, as the nation celebrates the life of King, it would behoove us to take a moment to fully interrogate our definition of greatness.
How the nation chooses to define greatness will have grave implications. On the one hand, we can choose to “make America great again” by embracing an ethos of xenophobia, misogyny, and racism, as has been advocated by the current President of the United States. According to this definition of greatness, we should always put America first, even when others are desperately in need of assistance. Thus, when asylum seekers arrive at our borders, the President’s definition of greatness dictates that we give in to a politics of fear and turn them away on the flimsy premise of their proclivity to violence. In contrast, King called upon Americans to redefine greatness by embracing an ethos that he called “dangerous altruism.”
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