One of the biggest questions we wrestle with is one that has existed far longer than any of us. It’s a question that resounds on the pages of Genesis and Exodus. We hear it echo from Moses to Abraham to the prophets. It’s a question that lingers in the gospels with Peter, James, and John. The question is simple yet profound: What will your legacy be? How will you be remembered?
Prior to his death, history suggests that Dr. King began to ponder such questions. He began to wonder what story would be told of his life. At Ebenezer Church on February 4th, 1968, Dr. King preached what became known as the Drum Major Sermon. If his congregants read between the lines, they understood that he was sermonizing about his imminent death and how he had come to terms with it. He began by quoting from Mark chapter 10, which recounts a conversation between James and John, who sought to sit beside him in glory. In King’s telling, Jesus responds that “whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant, and “whoever wants to be first among you will be a servant to all.”
From that homage to humble service to others, as exemplified by Jesus, King drew a moral for himself. He went on to reflect on his low regard for what he called the “drum major instinct.” He conceded, “We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.” He noted how that instinct can lead people astray in many ways—lavish spending on cars and houses, self-ambition, a racist sense of superiority, and other evils. Then he turned to his own legacy. The thought of his legacy prompted him to ruminate about his death, his funeral, and the kind of eulogy he would want. His legacy, he said, he would leave to the Ebenezer congregation to define. Not entirely, though. He implored them to remember him not for his Nobel Peace Prize or his three or four hundred other awards. No, he cried out, as the sermon reached its climax, if they should remember him as a drum major, he beseeched them to remember him as a drum major for justice and righteousness. His voice taut, he went on to say that if he could do his Christian duty and “bring salvation to a world once wrought, if he could spread the message as the master taught,” then his life would not have been in vain. He imagined that he would die with a sense of redemptive virtue. Indeed, he did.
It is said that the saddest words of tongue or pen are what could have been. Today we reflect not on what King could have been but rather on what he became – a black man of towering intellect, soaring oratory, and piercing moral clarity. A beacon of light amid the darkness, a model for a life lived with purpose. His words continue to inspire, his life continues to speak, and his legacy lives on.