Drum Major for Justice: Our Call to Action on MLK Day

8 min readJan 15, 2022

My grandmother, the late Helen Cromer Cooper, was what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have called a drum major for justice. Serving as a social worker for the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, she worked on Native American reservations, at Chicago’s Hull House with Jane Addams, and in civic leadership in her hometown. One of her most powerful stories was about her participation in the 1963 March on Washington, in which nearly a quarter of a million demonstrators descended on Washington, D.C. in the largest protest of its kind in the history of the nation’s capital.

Serving God Through Serving Humanity

A thread that wove through all her stories, through her whole life and legacy, was her desire to serve people. She believed in serving God through serving humanity. I once asked her what made her want to participate in the March on Washington. She told me there was a wave of justice coming on that she knew was too important to miss out on, and how, as a Black woman, she had an opportunity to stand for the liberation struggle of her people. She made a point to say that the support for Black liberation was multicultural and multiracial, that it was about not just the movement but the spirit of the movement.

And she talked about how that spirit moved her to go back to her community in Evanston, IL and use her formidable skills to advance racial justice by — among other things — becoming a member of Evanston’s first Community Relations Commission (now Human Relations Commission) and the National Urban League. The spirit of the March on Washington moved her to work for the desegregation of schools, and by her help, Evanston in 1967 became the first Northern city to desegregate all of its elementary schools. This work reflected her commitment to being what Dr. King called a “drum major for justice.”

The Drum Major Instinct

It was on February 4th, 1968 that Dr. King preached the sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct” from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church. This prophetic speech was proclaimed just two months before his assassination on April 4th. In it, he named what kind of legacy he wanted to have: “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.”

If you don’t have a musical background, you might be asking yourself what a drum major is. Drum majors are the folks standing up high above the marching band during the football game, conducting the music, keeping the beat, and running the show.


The Problem

But MLK was stressing that a particular kind of drum major was needed — not the one who had to be over and above everyone else, not the one who always had to be the leader, not out front or in charge, not more powerful than, but a drum major who was in tune with the pulse of the people, accountable to them, who helped keep the beat of social change. Dr. King said, “Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior… and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first” (King, “The Drum Major,” 176; 178). But a drum major for justice can turn the idea around for good: King preached that “greatness comes from humble servitude” and to “keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love” (“The Drum Major”). He implored his congregation to remember his attempts to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort prisoners. The drum major for justice is one who serves for the benefit of others.

The Need

This message is relevant for all of us today: how can we be a drum major for justice? We can see the need for leaders for justice from the — so-called — summer of racial awakening in 2020, when the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and countless others became part of a rallying cry for racial justice. And we can see it in the gross and inhumane inequalities as a result of COVID-19, which has turned out to be not only a pandemic of contagious respiratory illness, but a pandemic of racism as well. In response to all of this, how can we be the keepers of movement for social change, the people who motivate and inspire and move ourselves and others to action? How can we be drum majors for justice?

Granted, we as a society and a people have come a long way, and this is not to be forgotten. We have elected our first African American president, our first Black, and Asian, and woman Vice President; and the killers of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery have been convicted. Yet, the racial realities unearthed by COVID are startling and they are deadly for Black and Brown folk, and violent, racist killings of people of color persist.

The Question

And so, the question remains — what can you, what can I, what can we do about it? The answer is, these cantankerous times we are living in today call for us to be drum majors for justice. But how, when, and where do we do that if we are not president of the country or of a multinational business, or if we are not a C-Suite executive, VP at some university, or a government official? It is towards this end I implore you all to examine what justice looks like in your part of the world. It is in YOUR world, in your own sphere of influence, that you can be a drum major for justice.

What is it that you love enough — something greater than yourself, greater than your own convenience or comfort, your own wants and wishes — to be a servant of it? What do you believe in? What do you stand for? What do you live for? What will you die for? What brings meaning to your life and the lives of others?

The Answer: Your Spheres of Influence

In this search for the answer to these questions we find meaning, purpose, and passion. And in your search for answers, I want to end with a suggestion of where to start — not only in what demonstration to participate in, which organization to donate money to, or what diversity workshop you should enroll in — but in exploring your own sphere of influence. We all can do something and need to play our part. There are four layers to this I want to suggest: the intrapersonal, the interpersonal, the institutional, and the community. Ask yourself these questions to get started on your journey to being a drum major for justice within your sphere of influence:

  1. Intrapersonal: who am I, and what am I becoming? Starting inside ourselves, we ask what’s happening and what has happened in our world, our inner world, within ourselves… THAT is where we hold the bias, prejudice, stereotypes, and internalized subordination and internalized dominance that we carry everywhere we go that causes harm to our society and our interactions with people who are different than we are. This is where we first need to bring about transformation…. within! We need to do some abrasive soul inquiry to better understand who we are, why we are the way we are, how we impact the world, how to develop and improve ourselves, and how to cultivate and experience justice within. We must exercise the influence we have over ourselves.
  2. Interpersonal: how can I be a drum major for justice in my personal relationships? It is here that we need to be more just to one another — to our family, friends, neighbors, and all those we are in relationship with. We need to cultivate our own humanity in order to be able to connect to the humanity of those who we perceive to be different than we are. In our relationships with others is where we can be more equitable, inclusive, and just. But we cannot give what we do not have; hence, we must first cultivate it within our own being and our own identity before we can represent, exude, or live that justice we have in our relationships with others. It’s about leveraging these relationships for the positive.
  3. Institutional: what influence can I have in creating a more just institution? The third sphere of influence we all hold in varying degrees is with the institutions we are employed by, we patronize, and that we have membership in. This includes our co-workers and colleagues. When my father became the first African American to ascend through the ranks to police chief, on one hand he did so partially through the positive influence he had in his relationships with others, and on the other hand, there was a fear held by many White police officers that he was going to discriminate against them because of their race. Yet, when the first officer he fired was African American, the shock of that sent a message to a lot of people that he was holding everyone to the same high standard regardless of their race. As well, he went on to be the first to promote other African Americans and women in ways the department had never seen — in ways that were equitable and fair to everyone. Whether it’s holding businesses we patronize or organizations we volunteer with accountable for their practices, or our co-workers and colleagues accountable for their actions, in these institutions we often hold an influence we can leverage towards justice.
  4. Community: what broader movements towards justice can I instigate in my community? The fourth sphere of influence we all have is in the community in which we reside. As a community member, how we carry ourselves represents the various identities we are often judged by. How we treat and act towards others can contribute to an atmosphere of goodwill. How we engage can go towards the betterment of those in need. My father, Bill Logan Jr. exercised his sphere of influence in our community by co-founding the Chessmen Club of the Northshore Inc., one of our community’s oldest Black male community organizations serving as mentors, advocates and role models, while providing scholarships and pathways to internships and job opportunities for young people. My great grandmother Jinki housed and fed homeless people in her basement, and opened her home up to Black Northwestern University students to congregate and celebrate the holidays with our family. Where can you become active in the movement for justice in your community?

We need to see the responsibility we all hold in pushing for an end to racism and other forms of oppression. The need for action is not just one from the past — it’s not just a day to celebrate what great work MLK and other racial justice leaders did before us. It’s time, today, to commit to being a drum major, to doing the work that allows us to connect to others and lead in our efforts of justice. Dr. King said, “I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody”; it is in acting upon our spheres of influence towards justice that we can best serve and love those around us for a more just world.




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