Dr. King’s 2023 “Teach the Speech” Focuses on “The Drum Major Instinct,” Emphasizes Leadership in the Service of Others

This week’s post features the 2023 Dr. King Teach the Speech at Georgetown. Check out the January events and curriculum support guide to make this year’s selected speech, The Drum Major Instinct, come to life in your teaching at work at the University. 

Georgetown’s annual Teach the Speech is a welcomed learning opportunity for all parts of the University, including the School of Continuing Studies. Mission in Motion has engaged with this yearly event and written about it in 2022 and in 2021 (the blog has also covered SCS Faculty Director Dr. Erinn Tucker-Oluwole’s participation in the 2021 MLK Initiative event on food equity in Washington, D.C.). 

This year’s speech, The Drum Major Instinct, was delivered by Dr. King two months before his assassination and is filled with timely themes that can challenge and inspire our ongoing efforts to realize a beloved SCS community that honors the diversity of our members by striving for justice and the common good. The speech was then and remains today a provocative perspective on the two sides of greatness, significance, and the importance in each person. 

The intention of Teach the Speech is to encourage faculty and staff to meaningfully incorporate the speech’s content into classes and work at the University. The best way to dig into the curricular and professional applications of this year’s chosen speech is to first read it or listen to it. If you were not able to attend Teach-In 2023, I encourage you to check out the portions of the event that were livestreamed and recorded. You can watch a lecture by Dr. Vicki Crawford, Director of the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. collection, and a sermon and closing by Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, Senior Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. After all of this, I recommend that you engage with the comprehensive teaching guide that offers an array of suggestions about how to make The Drum Major Instinct come to life in your teaching or working context. 

From the perspective of the professional and continuing education learning community at SCS, I think this year’s selected speech presents several avenues for deeper exploration. For one, adult professional learners are motivated by their desires for greatness and for public recognition. Being motivated to advance one’s career and enhance one’s professional prospects is a healthy reason to seek higher learning at SCS. But even this noble ambition can become distorted if the intention for greatness becomes a desire to be first at all costs. Selfishness can crowd out others in one’s life, leading to neglect of duties to family and community. Dr. King is realistic about the human condition as he says: “Now in adult life, we still have it, and we really never get by it. We like to do something good. And you know, we like to be praised for it.” But Dr. King invites the listener to consider the other side of the pursuit of the ideal of greatness. 

For Dr. King, to be great is to be in service to others. The speech is an incredible expression of Dr. King’s humble embrace of his own mortality by giving the speech’s audience instructions for his own eulogy. In these instructions, we today hear a call to servant leadership. Dr. King does not want his memorialization to include his many awards and accomplishments. Instead, he says: “I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.” In this simple request, Dr. King is helping us appreciate what most matters in a life. A life of professional significance should be assessed on the basis of how one shares their gifts with others and helps realize a more just and inclusive community. We can take this lesson to heart as we pursue our professional ambitions at SCS. A life of professional development and advancement need not come at the expense of serving a higher purpose in life. 

Dr. King’s speech also points us to the social justice dimensions of our educational enterprise. The Spirit of Georgetown invites a commitment to justice that moves from charity to acting for change in social systems and structures that contribute to injustice. Georgetown’s Center for Social Justice, Research, Teaching & Service (CSJ) offers some opportunities to commit to this deeper work of social change. 

Rabbi Rachel Gartner, SCS Senior Adviser for Spiritual Care, embodied such a commitment this month while she spoke on a panel at the 2nd National Multi-Faith Conference on Ending Mass Incarceration.  At this conference hosted at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., Rabbi Gartner presented this Values-Based Call to Action co-authored for the Jewish Council of Public Affairs. In this work, Rabbi Rachel demonstrates that contemporary movements for social justice, inspired by the example of Dr. King, are rooted in deep spiritual and moral foundations.