What Dr. King Has To Say To Millenials

06/15/2010 03:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Millennials want to be drum majors--highly visible leaders whose gait ripples throughout every sector of society. Our ambition is stoked by the ubiquitous success stories of millennials like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (26 yrs. old), the uber-talented Lebron James (25), and the darling of popular music, Beyonce Knowles (28). To riff on the Pew Research Center, we are confident, connected, and as open to change as the social media platforms that shape our identities. Born after 1980, with political imaginations framed by the memories of 9/11 and Obama's 2008 campaign for change, we are more poised than any other generation in American history to become drum majors. The question is: what type of drum majors will we be?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. grappled with this question forty years ago when he preached a sermon entitled "The Drum Major Instinct." Excerpts from this homily were popularized through a televised funeral service on April 9th, 1968. King's scriptural passage comes from Mark 10, the story where James and John audaciously ask Jesus to sit at his right and left hand. Why? King contends that James and John believed that Jesus' reign would "set Jerusalem free and establish his Kingdom on Mount Zion." They wanted to be individuals of influence in what they thought would be a new political regime; they wanted to be drum majors. King, like most great preachers, helps us to see ourselves--and our society--in his selected text. Instead of condemning James and John for wanting to march out front, King suggests that the desire for recognition and importance can be harnessed for social benefit or malady. In terms of social maladies, he suggests that everything from conspicuous consumption to the myth of American exceptionalism derives, in part, from a distortion of "the drum major instinct." Concerning social benefit, King makes two points: 1) being a drum major is not about leading the parade, but about lovingly serving humanity; and 2) King lifts up Jesus as an exemplar of public service, an itinerant preacher who went around healing, bringing sight to the blind, and so forth.

Millennials, like James and John in the Bible, want to be drum majors. As such, the fierce urgency of King's inquiry intensifies in our contemporary moment: what type of drum majors will millennials be? In two key aspects, King's sermon can occasion a moment of interrogative introspection for millennials.

Are we standing up for children? The marching of milliennials is enabled by the drum majors of previous generations. We share a civic inheritance of voting rights and expanded college access, as well as opportunities in the City Halls and central business districts of American urban centers. This inheritance, however, is not evenly distributed throughout our demographic. How might we ensure that poor black and brown children do not shoulder the burden, and receive few of the benefits, of this civic inheritance? Moreover, how can we leave behind a civic inheritance of caring for God's creation and educational equity for our children?

Are we serving our communities? According to the Pew Research Center, "Millennials are on track to become the most educated generation in American history..." Moreover, "in 2008, almost 40% of 18 to 24 year olds" were enrolled in college. What are the social expectations of receiving a college education in America? The increasing scope of college service organizations like the Bonner Foundation and Interfaith Youth Core suggest that a well-rounded undergraduate education entails a commitment to service learning. Dr. King captured this sentiment when he remarked: "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, "What are we doing for others?"

What we do for others largely determines how our generation will be remembered. How, then, will millennials be remembered? Will we be remembered only for attaining unprecedented levels of education? For generating enormous personal wealth? Will we be more concerned about making a difference in society than making a living? As you ponder these questions, consider Dr. King's mediation on his legacy.

"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".

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., The Drum Major Instinct

If the trends and statistics hold, millennials are destined to become a generation of drum majors. Will our lawyers reign in corporate excess and reform a broken criminal justice system? Will our business leaders re-imagine capitalism and follow Muhammad Yunus' vision of social business? Will our religious leaders employ ijtihad (independent reasoning) and prophetic imagination to stand up for--and stand with--the "least of these"? Time will tell. May the ministerial march of Dr. King inspire us to become drum majors for our time, conducting symphonies of public service in a world distorted by the dissonance of selfishness and private concern. Amen.