On February 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon entitled “The Drum Major’s Instinct” at Ebenezer Baptist Church exactly two months before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Dr. King’s sermon about the biblical story of James and John, who shared their desire to be on the right and left side of Jesus in Heaven, was used to share how many have an instinct to be important. Dr. King used that story to explain how the need for superiority is at the root of many race problems in America.
White privilege is an outgrowth of the desire for racial superiority, and it is just as prevalent in mindsets today as it was then.
White privilege and the exercise of a superior status against people of color paved the road for the U.S.’s current immigration policies and practices. Further, the reference to people with terms such as “illegal aliens” is language intended to create an inferior image of another group in an effort to regulate the status of God’s children to subhuman. We can hear the white drum major beating loudly through the discussions of the border war and wall.
The drum major’s steady beat throughout history can be viewed in how neighborhoods and schools are segregated. Those segregated patterns were purposefully created in part through the early land grants offered only to white families and property taxes that fund the schools in those neighborhoods.
We can hear the steady drum beat in looking at systems designed decades ago that create disparities in health outcomes within races that have contributed to a disproportionate number of people of color having higher blood pressure, higher incarceration rates and less educational attainment compared to white men and women. The drum major instinct causes one to limit opportunity for all in support of access for the privileged few.
The drum major’s beat can be heard most clearly when we review the black history that is not taught in schools today, which creates a narrative of inferiority for people of color. The beautiful black history of Black Wall, which illustrates the early work of black business owners, Street is not taught in most economic or business course books.
Jim Crow laws and their current impact years later are not taught in depth in textual material. Understanding the impact of Jim Crow could inspire future policy makers to transform the system feeding generational disparities, recognizing the foundation it sits on.
While Rosa Parks is such an important historical figure that history books do not teach that on March 2, 1955 a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin refused to move to the back of the bus and was the first to challenge segregated bussing and one of four women to challenge it in court. This was nine months before Rosa Parks. Imagine the empowering message teens today can get from a historical narrative framing youth as empowered voices.
We have to know the shoulders and sacrifices we stand on today to appreciate and use our God-given rights for equality.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated in his sermon at Ebeneezer Baptist Church, “Some people have to feel superior … and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first.” Dr. King went on to say, “Jesus responded to keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love.” Dr. King’s sermon shared how love, service and civil disobedience could change the course of history.
Therefore, this February lets change the beat of the drum. Be challenged to be first in creating equal opportunities in your schools and places of work. Be first in giving a new historically accurate narrative to children, empowering them with images and ideas of greatness that lie within them.
When being first and leading falls to you, as it did for a teen like Claudette Colvin and as it did for President Barack Obama, use it to serve, courageously challenge, open doors, and know that without the first to open the doors of access and opportunity, you cannot have a second enter.
As Dr. King challenged us all using the words from Jesus, “Seek to be first in love.” Everything we do must be grounded in love first and the walls of fear and inferiority will fall.
We are living the history of yesterday, and we are creating a new history for tomorrow. I look forward to one day hearing a new drum beat and seeing diversity in the drum major. I am encouraged that future black drum majors will lead with love and service at the heart as we empower a unified group willing to create a history of justice and equality uplifting us all.
Celebrate black history all year by uplifting the accurate and forgotten history that shares the message of greatness, love and courage. March on!
Tiffany Anderson is the first black female superintendent of Topeka Public Schools in Topeka, Kansas.