Drum Majors for Justice

I sat with two drum majors for justice last week. Twenty years ago two women, one white and the other African American, had a vision of keeping the dream alive. Lizzie Bailey’s history with Martin Luther King, Jr. went back to December 5, 1955, when King came to Montgomery, Alabama, where Lizzie was living. Referring to the arrest of Rosa Parks four days earlier, he spoke out against bus segregation, and the Montgomery bus boycott was launched.

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Lizzie remembers how young the twenty-six year old King looked, but she was convicted by his preaching. Having witnessed the horror of segregation, false arrests, and beatings of blacks, Lizzie participated in the bus boycott and has since devoted her life to racial reconciliation.

Rev. Juanita Ferguson had perfect attendance in high school at Cass Tech in Detroit until she heard that Dr. King was going to preach at Central Methodist Church. She asked the assistant principal if she could have an excused absence, but he said no. Juanita felt a call to ministry as a seventh grader at Lake Huron Methodist Camp, so she decided that graduating from high school with perfect attendance was not as important as hearing Dr. King preach. Now a retired United Methodist pastor, Rev. Ferguson has also devoted her life to building bridges of understanding between whites and African Americans.

Lizzie and Juanita met in the early 1990’s when Juanita was the district superintendent of the Detroit West District of the Detroit Conference of The United Methodist Church. Lizzie was a member of Magnolia Methodist Church, where Juanita had attended a program Lizzie organized honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory. Juanita was so impressed and touched by the event that she asked Lizzie if they could work together to make this a district event rather than just a program of Magnolia Methodist Church.

Rev. Ferguson offered six hundred dollars in district money to sponsor the event, and in 1994 the first Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration took place. Lizzie Bailey was the first chairperson of the committee, serving in that role for fifteen years. The event was initially attended by mostly African American churches, but over the years white churches were encouraged to participate as well. In recent years it has become a true multicultural celebration.

Lizzie said last week, “Juanita and I are very different in that I worked for racial justice by participating in marches, and Juanita did the same by preaching.” Both women were and still are drum majors for justice. “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” MLK

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The twentieth anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration took place in the Detroit Renaissance District on Sunday, January 12. Dick Gleason, program chair of 2014 dinner, was one of the thirteen Mississippi Freedom Riders arrested in the Jackson City Trailways Line bus station on June 2, 1961. An ordained pastor, Dick ministered for years in Chicago’s largest public housing project and has spent his life as a drum major for justice.

Every year special awards, scholarships, and recognitions are given to youth, young adults, and older adults who devote their lives to breaking down racial barriers. One of those annual presentations is the Drum Major for Justice Award, which is given to those who lead the way in working for peace and reconciliation.

The award is named for Dr. King’s last sermon, which was preached at his home congregation, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, on February 4, 1968, just two months before his assassination. The Drum Major Instinct (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBiFnDuCJIU) is based on Mark 10, where disciples James and John ask to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in his kingdom. Jesus responds, “Gentile leaders lord it over their subjects and are tyrants. But it’s not to be that way with you. Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

In his sermon, Dr. King claims that we are all like James and John. “And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct – a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first… Our first cry as a baby was a bid for attention. And all through childhood the drum major impulse or instinct is a major obsession.”

King goes on to say that as adults, the desire for recognition and importance prompts us to be obsessed with the right kind of clothes, jewelry, cars, or home. It causes us to live beyond our means. Our obsession with outdoing and one-upping one another leads to “snobbish exclusivism.”

By contrast, the church should be a place where degrees, skin color, or money do not set us apart. “It’s the one place where everybody should be the same, standing before a common master and Savior. And a recognition grows out of this – that all men are brothers because they are children of a common father.”

King reflects in his sermon, “In fact, not too long ago, a man down in Mississippi said that God was a charter member of the White Citizens Council. And so God being the charter member means that everybody who’s in that has a kind of divinity, a kind of superiority. And think of what has happened in history as a result of this perverted use of the drum major instinct. It has led to the most tragic prejudice, the most tragic expressions of man’s inhumanity to man.”

Dr. King’s impassioned preaching reaches its climax when he turns the drum major instinct upside down. “Jesus said in substance, ‘Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.’

“But he reordered priorities. And Jesus said, ‘Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do…’

“And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important – wonderful. If you want to be recognized – wonderful. If you want to be great – wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.”

Finally, Dr. King talks about his own funeral, knowing that his life was constantly in danger. “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.”

We cannot underestimate the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day every third Monday in January. It’s how we keep the dream alive. It’s how we, too, become drum majors for justice in our world. I want to be out in front of the drum major parade of justice, walking with Martin, Lizzy, Juanita, Dick and all of our foremothers and forefathers in the faith.

We are invited to walk together, hand in hand, marching in solidarity with all who struggle, surrendering our power, protesting injustice, giving up our privileges, loving reconciliation, and together singing Charles Tindley’s 1900 gospel song: “We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day. Oh, deep in my heart I do believe. We shall overcome some day.”

“Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.” The Drum Major Instinct, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Blessings,
Laurie

3 thoughts on “Drum Majors for Justice

  1. Dear Laurie,

    Thanks for sending this today. Just what I needed. I am spending my day off cleaning my house, and your post will give me an opportunity to “stay in the moment” and at least ponder where we’ve been and where we’re going. Nice to get a few facts on Juanita. She, of course, is special to us here at FUMC and I love knowing about her call to ministry at such a young age.

  2. Thank you, once again, Laurie Haller, for this splendid focus on Martin King a remarkable champion leader of God focused living and life together. And thank you for highlighting Juanita and Lizzie. Serving with Juanita on the Detroit Conference cabinet I learned the joy day to day that comes from one who prayed continuously and deeply. Her sense of right, and her energy seeking it, was a gift to me…and then there were her almost daily written prayers in my mail. Don Ott

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