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Real Path to Greatness is Through Service

A lesson to teach about Dr. King

Marian Wright Edelman | 1/28/2015, 2:34 p.m.
Dr. King said too many people never outgrow this instinct—and by constantly struggling to be the most powerful or famous ...
Marian Wright Edelman

“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 this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”


These well-known words are from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Feb. 4, 1968. Dr. King was explaining that we all start out with the ingrained instinct to be “drum majors:” everyone wants to be important, to be first, to lead the parade. Watch a group of children try to form a line and right away you’ll see this instinct in action. But Dr. King said too many people never outgrow this instinct—and by constantly struggling to be the most powerful or famous or wealthiest or best-educated, we forget one of the Gospels’ and life’s largest truths: the real path to greatness is through service.

This is one of the key lessons we should teach our children about Dr. King. Many of them have just studied Dr. King in school in the days leading up to his birthday, and many have learned to see him as a history book hero—a larger-than-life, mythical figure. But it’s crucial for them to understand Dr. King wasn’t a superhuman with magical powers. Just as the extraordinary new movie Selma is reminding a new generation of filmgoers, our children need to be reminded that Dr. King was a real person—just like all of the other ministers, parents, teachers, neighbors, and other familiar adults in their lives today.

I first heard Dr. King speak in person at a Spelman College chapel service during my senior year in college. Dr. King was just 31 but he had already gained a national reputation during the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott five years earlier. He became a mentor and friend. Although I do remember him as a great leader and a hero, I also remember him as someone able to admit how often he was afraid and unsure about his next step. But faith prevailed over fear, uncertainty, fatigue, and sometimes depression. It was his human vulnerability and ability to rise above it that I most remember. “If I Can Help Somebody Along the Way” was his favorite song. He was an ordinary man who made history because he was willing to stand up and serve and make a difference in extraordinary ways as did the legions of other civil rights warriors in the 1950s and 1960s. We need to teach our children every day that they can and must make a difference too. “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”