The Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration of Human Rights is a wonderful way to start the year and start a new semester at the University of Iowa. I am delighted by the imaginative changes to this year’s community convocation as we refresh our annual time to remember Dr. King. I thank all of those who have worked so hard to organize this program and all of the events to come. And I thank you for joining us today as we celebrate the spirit and legacy of one of our greatest Americans, Martin Luther King, Jr.
The University’s annual King celebration is always focused on a theme taken from a quotation by Dr. King. This year, we are focusing on a quotation that appears on the new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. that was dedicated last year: “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.” This quotation raised some eyebrows, as it seems a bit self-aggrandizing for Dr. King. The full quotation—which is also provided on our Celebration of Human Rights website—is, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice, say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
What Dr. King was really advocating here was humility in the service of what is right—and that’s the lesson we should take away as we take the time to remember Dr. King today. The statement comes from Dr. King’s 1968 sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.” Dr. King said, “There is deep down within all of us an instinct. It's a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.” Dr. King goes on to say that this instinct isn’t necessarily bad. We certainly have these ambitions at the University of Iowa. We want to be intellectual, creative, and social leaders. We want to achieve excellence, and we value being at the top of our fields.
But Dr. King warns that while such ambitions are fine, “if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct.” The downside of wanting to be out front as the drum major is that you might think you’re better than everyone else. And, as Dr. King said, one of the most dangerous, pernicious outcomes of a sense of superiority is racism and oppression.
So Dr. King advocates a “new norm of greatness” that, in his sermon, he says Jesus gave us. King says, “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 I think that’s the mission of the university—to be great in the service of society. We do seek and enjoy the awards, the rankings, the recognition, both on individual and institutional levels. But I hope and think that we always remember that our greatness—our medical breakthroughs, our Pulitzer Prizes, our discoveries in the farthest reaches of outer space—are meant for the expansion of knowledge and the betterment of society. And so Dr. King says, in essence, sure, call me a drum major. But it’s not about me. “Call me a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.”
That’s what our purpose is today and in the coming two weeks—to be out front, together, in advocating for these highest values that Dr. King advocated. In the coming days, we will do this by helping others through service, and by being inspired through others’ words—such as the keynote talk by the Honorable Romonda Belcher very shortly—and by artistic expressions. The unity walk we took together before this convocation was a perfect symbol for our theme—walking forward, but doing so in unity, all of us drum majors together. The beautiful harmonies of Voices of Soul we are hearing today—and the wonderful performances at the “Drumming for Justice” festive musical event on Wednesday—also strike just the right note for our time to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, ideas, ideals, advocacy, passion, sacrifice—and, of course, both his greatness and his service.
Welcome to another wonderful Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration of Human Rights, and to this inspiring commemorative convocation.