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“The Drum Major Instinct"

Dr. King's Final Sermon

April 4, 1967. New York, N.Y.


Martin Luther King’s his last speech, “I’ve Been the Mountaintop”, is well known, but you might have never heard of his last sermon – “The Drum Major Instinct”, where Dr. King encouraged his congregation to seek greatness, but to do so through service and love.

How remarkable that even amongst the fear of death threats that were so common near the end of his life, that Martin Luther King continued to preach a message of love and continued to serve and inspire until his last day.

Key Quotes

In the speech, Dr. King says that the great task of life is essentially to transform our ego, by redirecting our desires away from selfish, competitive goals and towards our spiritual growth and service to others.

He says before we judge others for their selfishness, “let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance… We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade… It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. (Amen) I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity.

“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. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness.”

Let us all aim to be truly great, so our lives may be a blessing on the world.


On 4 February 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached ‘‘The Drum Major Instinct’’ from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Ironically, two months before his assassination on 4 April 1968, he told his congregation what he would like said at his funeral: ‘‘I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody’’ (King, ‘‘The Drum Major,’’ 185). Excerpts were played at King’s nationally televised funeral service, held at Ebenezer on 9 April 1968.

The sermon was an adaptation of the 1952 homily ‘‘Drum-Major Instincts’’ by J. Wallace Hamilton, a well-known, liberal, white Methodist preacher. King encouraged his congregation to seek greatness, but to do so through service and love.


Full Sermon

The entire text and audio of this sermon are available at:

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