Famous Eulogies: Martin Luther King Jr. Eulogizes Himself

Some eulogies provide a profoundly meaningful, lasting tribute to the deceased

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at a rally held at the Robert Taylor Houses in Chicago, Illinois, in the 1960s. Photo © Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Ideally, a well-crafted and -delivered eulogy illuminates and elucidates special qualities about the deceased that enhance the existing emotional and spiritual connections between the person who died and the living, thereby focusing and increasing a listener's appreciation of the life lost. In some cases, the eulogy itself proves a memorable and meaningful embodiment of both the unique nature of the departed and the depth of feeling that endures in the hearts and minds of those who remain.

This article presents the (partial*) text of just such an enduring remembrance speech: The final sermon Martin Luther King Jr. delivered to his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, on February 4, 1968. Titled "The Drum Major Instinct," King metaphorically used the image of a drum major leading a parade to draw parallels to the human instinct to seek attention, recognition and importance at the expense of others. At the end of his sermon, King expresses what he wants somebody to say about him at his own funeral.

Exactly two months later, April 4, 1968, the civil-rights leader died at the hands of an assassin's bullet in Memphis, Tennessee. For King's eulogy, his widow, Coretta Scott King, chose to play as his eulogy a recording of her husband's moving, profound, yet disturbingly prophetic "Drum Major" sermon during the private funeral service held the next day, April 5, at the Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Today, nearly 50 years later, this sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. continues to prove as moving, profound and relevant as the day he first delivered it, and contemporary writers, authors and journalists often refer to King's "Drum Major" sermon to draw their own parallels to current problems in politics, race relations and other contentious areas of human existence.

* Author's note: The text below offers the beginning and conclusion of King's stirring-but-lengthy sermon/eulogy. Links to the full text of the sermon, as well as a complete audio recording, are provided at the end of this article.

"The Drum Major Instinct" by Martin Luther King Jr., February 4, 1968
This morning, I would like to use as a subject from which to preach, "The Drum Major Instinct"; "The Drum Major Instinct."

And our text for the morning is taken from a very familiar passage in the 10th chapter, as recorded by Saint Mark. Beginning with the 35th verse of that chapter, we read these words: "And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came unto him saying, 'Master, we would that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire.'"

"And he said unto them, 'What would ye that I should do for you?' And they said unto him, 'Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.'"

"But Jesus said unto them, 'Ye know not what ye ask: Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?' And they said unto him, 'We can.' And Jesus said unto them, 'Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of, and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized; but to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared.'"

And then Jesus goes on toward the end of that passage to say: "But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant. And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all."

The setting is clear -- James and John are making a specific request of the master. They had dreamed, as most of the Hebrews dreamed, of a coming king of Israel who would set Jerusalem free and establish his kingdom on Mount Zion, and in righteousness rule the world. And they thought of Jesus as this kind of king, and they were thinking of that day when Jesus would reign supreme as this new king of Israel.

And they were saying, "Now, when you establish your kingdom, let one of us sit on the right hand and the other on the left hand of your throne."

Now, very quickly, we would automatically condemn James and John, and we would say they were selfish. Why would they make such a selfish request? But, before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves; and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance; that same desire for attention, that same desire to be first. Of course the other disciples got mad with James and John, and you could understand why, but we must understand that we have some of the same James and John qualities. And 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. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.

And so, before we condemn them, let us see that we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction -- to lead the parade. Alfred Adler, the great psychoanalyst, contends that this is the dominant impulse. Sigmund Freud used to contend that sex was the dominant impulse, and Adler came with a new argument saying that this quest for recognition, this desire for attention, this desire for distinction is the basic impulse -- the basic drive of human life -- this drum major instinct.


Every now and then, I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life's final common denominator -- that something that we call death. We all think about it. And, every now and then, I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don't think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, "What is it that I would want said?" And I leave the word to you this morning.

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don't want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell 'em not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want 'em to say. Tell 'em not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize -- that isn't important. Tell 'em not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards -- that's not important. Tell 'em not to mention where I went to school.

I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, 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. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say.

If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he's traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.

If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.

Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.

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