(NNPA)—The swirl around commemorating and celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday always fascinates me. The mainstream media quickly goes to his most famous quote, “I have a dream that one day people will be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.” It’s a powerful quote, but equally powerful, and delivered in the same speech, are the words, “We have come to the nation’s capital to cash a check…a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” If people said, “cash the check” as frequently as they say “I have a dream”, we might have a different mindset about the economic status of African-American people.
I have claimed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an economist because of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, peace and freedom for their spirits.” Because economists deal with issues of distribution, I have claimed that this is a baseline economic statement that places Dr. King in the economists’ Hall of Fame. Yet, if one reads his speech, the Drum Major Instinct, delivered Feb. 4, 1968, just two months before his death, one would claim him as both a psychologist and prophet as well.
In the Drum Major speech, Dr. King deconstructs human nature, our need to be in front, to keep up with the Joneses, to claim the best to the detriment of the rest. He scolds sororities and fraternities, even as he acknowledges himself as a fraternity man. He scolds over spenders for the folly they engage in when they use their money to chase material goods for status, instead of chasing meaning. He says the race problem may come out of the drum major instinct, the need for some to feel superior, thereby making others feel inferior. And he says if he will be a drum major for anything, if he will be superior in anything, he will be a drum major for justice.
Hidden inside the drum major speech are a couple of prophetic paragraphs. He says, “There are nations caught up in the drum major instinct. ‘I must be first.’ ‘I must be supreme.’ ‘Our nation must rule the world.’ And I am sad to say this nation in which we live is the supreme culprit.” He goes on to say, “God didn’t call America to do what she is doing in the world now… We’ve committed more war crimes than almost any nation n the world… And we won’t stop it because of our pride and arrogance as a nation.” He spoke these words in 1968. Do they resonate now?
Prophecy. “God has a way of even putting nations in their place… If you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power. And that can happen to America. Every now and then I go back and read Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening. And we have perverted the drum major instinct.”
Dr. King said this in 1968, long before China started kicking the United States in the behind economically. He said this in 1968, long before we fell back in world educational achievement. Once we led the world in the proportion of our population that had either AA or BA degrees. Now we rank 10th, an amazing decline for a nation that claims to lead the world. President Obama would like us to regain our preeminence, and we have the resources, but not the will, to do so. To quote Dr. King, “God has a way of putting nations in their place.”
Yes, we all want to be part of something, that which is popular. That’s the drum major instinct. But, what are we drum majors for? Oppression? False superiority? Or are we, like Dr. King, drum majors for justice?
Given what happened in 1968, Dr. King was spot on in predicting our nation’s denouement. We are in a downward spiral and our direction won’t change until we embrace the concepts of social and economic justice that Dr. King so effectively preached.
(Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.)