The Atlantic

Revisiting One of King's Final and Most Haunting Sermons

Delivered two months before he died, “The Drum Major Instinct” saw the preacher give his own eulogy.
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“The Drum Major Instinct” is one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s finest sermons and perhaps his most haunting. He delivered it exactly two months before his assassination, on February 4, 1968, at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he served as co-pastor with his father. In both substance and style, the sermon is vintage late King: He fiercely articulates the imperatives of faith and citizenship with the voice of a preacher who had mastered his art.

Still, what distinguishes “The Drum Major Instinct” is that King concludes this homily by rehearsing his death, effectively spelling out the kind of eulogy he wanted delivered at his funeral. It’s spellbinding to listen to, especially when King reaches the climax and begins to reckon with his imminent mortality, his voice heightened with the kind of emotion rarely heard in his other recorded speeches.

The sermon wasn’t one of King’s iconic addresses, nor was it delivered on a grand stage; rather, it was part of a Sabbath service given in his home church. In the sermon, King is a minister teaching and communing with his flock. Listening to the recording of “The Drum Major Instinct,”Amen,” “Yes,” “Preach it,” and “Make it plain”adding resonance to King’s words.

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