Kia Franklin

Remembering a Drum Major for Justice


As many readers know, TortDeform is hosted by the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. Originally called the Drum Major Foundation, DMI was founded by Harry Wachtel, lawyer and adviser to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the turbulent years of the civil rights movement. DMI was relaunched in 1999 by New York attorney William Wachtel, Harry's son, Martin Luther King III, and Ambassador Andrew Young.

Why "Drum Major" of all names? Here’s some background.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that "the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct"--the instinct to set oneself ahead of the pack, at the forefront, to distinguish oneself--into a life motivated by service to others and furtherance of an agenda for justice and equality. On February 4th, 1968, King gave his famous speech on The Drum Major Instinct. He said:

…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 them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them 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.

What made King a drum major in these respects was his willingness to speak truth to power. He was un-shy about identifying and standing up against the social injustices of his time, many of which persist to this day. He transformed the drum major instinct into a mission to serve humanity and help advance the movement for fairness and equality.

A staple tool in the fight against societal injustices in this country has been, and remains, the civil court system. People rely upon their legal rights to help secure a more responsive government, one which protects people and doesn't put the desires of powerful interest groups ahead of the needs of ordinary citizens. And the courts provide people with a means to assert those rights.

The fight for access to the courts is about much more than what opponents say in order to trivialize the struggle. They say it is all about money, when really it is all about making sure that regardless of how rich or poor a person is, each person has the right to demand fair and decent treatment. They say it is about enriching lawyers, when really it is about empowering ordinary people so they can fight for what they need and deserve in order to live a good life: physical safety and health, economic security and freedom from fraudulent activity, the freedom to express their thoughts, protection from unnecessary harm, and the ability to work diligently and earn a living for their families without being exploited or discriminated against.

TortDeform is a forum for discussing the importance of the civil justice system. While sometimes this dialogue narrows into very particular tort “reform” issues, it is important every now and then to take a step back to see what this conversation is about more broadly, and how that fits into the even larger movement for social justice in which King played such a remarkable role.

Visit DMI blog to read more thoughtful reflections on Martin Luther King and the ongoing significance of his rich legacy.

Kia Franklin: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 9:30 AM, Jan 19, 2009 in Civil Justice
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