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Michael Obel-Omia: King’s lessons on greatness and humility
By MICHAEL OBEL-OMIA
Last month I attended a conference in Washington, D.C. After the conference, I walked over to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The memorial’s location visually and symbolically connects the Lincoln Memorial, to its northwest, and the Jefferson Memorial, to its southeast.
The massive memorial depicts Dr. King in a relief of a “Stone of Hope” emerging from two equally colossal “Mountains of Despair”. The inspiration for this memorial alludes to his signature speech, in 1963’s March in Washington, “I Have a Dream.” On one side of the Stone of Hope is the line, “Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope.”
The other quotation on the Stone of Hope, a paraphrase of his “The Drum Major Instinct” speech, has been controversial.The quotation reads, “I was a Drum Major for Justice, Peace, and Righteousness,” which paraphrases the longer and more humble: “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.”
Many critics of the quotation, including poet Maya Angelou, observed that the paraphrased version of the speech makes Dr. King sound arrogant, but actually the entire speech celebrates humility and service.
Delivered on Feb. 4, 1968, precisely two months before his death, the speech examines the “Drum Major Instinct” in all of us, the need, the desire, to feel out front, to be in the lead. As he notes, “We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.” We want to be out front, because we want to be noticed. Dr. King said that our first cry as a baby is a “bid for attention,” and that instinctive need for attention never leaves us.
And we see that so clearly today in our society, as we try to unravel the perplexing story about the fictional dying girlfriend of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o. We don’t have all the facts yet in this strange story, but we do know that an unhealthy “bid for attention” has something to do with it.
That desire to be out front consumed Lance Armstrong as he won an unprecedented seven consecutive Tour de France titles and assumed the mantle of greatest cyclist (perhaps, even, athlete) ever. Like many, I marveled at what he seemingly accomplished and drew immense inspiration from his achievements. Armstrong loomed before me as a modern-day Colossus, emerging from a battle with cancer and bestriding an inspiring world of triumph.
Now we all know that none of it was true, and we are left among the rubble of his confession, wondering about the price we’re willing to pay to achieve greatness, or at least apparent greatness.
As I stood before the King Memorial last month, I felt small, but he helped me to believe that my life can have meaning through humility and service.
As he said in his “Drum Major Instinct” speech, “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. And you can be that servant.”
As I watch men strive to present to the public the appearance of greatness through fictional stories and other deceit, I am reminded that true greatness and genuine happiness arise from serving others.
President George H.W. Bush declared that the commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday would be more than celebration: it would also be a day of service. His declaration gives all of us permission to seek greatness through service to one another. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. King, noted, “The greatest birthday gift my husband could receive is if people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds celebrated the holiday by performing individual acts of kindness through service to others.”
We have a tremendous opportunity (and responsibility) to be great,. That greatness will come, not through building houses made of dishonesty, but through service to one another, and through connecting with one another. We may be discouraged as we listen to the rancor in Washington, D.C., around issues that affect our lives. But we don’t have to feel small, insignificant and helpless. By using this day and every other as an opportunity to serve one another, we can, in Dr. King’s words, “make of this old world a new world.”
Michael Obel-Omia is head of the school at the Paul Cuffee School, a charter school in Providence.