6th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Luncheon


Thank you, Willie (Spearman). Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for inviting me. It is an honor to speak at this luncheon and to speak about Dr. Martin Luther King.

Through his life, his message, and his actions, Dr. King was a teacher for all Americans, showing us how to live a life of powerful, profound service to each other and to the country. His message made our nation stronger, nobler, and better. It is appropriate that we honor him today, recall his life and vision, and re-dedicate ourselves to his work, which is our work here at HUD. For I believe this agency is exactly the kind of effort of which Dr. King would approve and support, knowing that our work is the people's work, laboring to guarantee equality, justice, fairness, and respect for all Americans.

All of you know Dr. King's great speech on the Mall. I think you can still hear the echoes of those good words if you stand at the Lincoln Memorial and close your eyes. His Dream was Lincoln's Dream...it is the American Dream.

But I hope you also know a speech he gave at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta almost 40 years ago to this day. It is titled "The Drum Major Instinct."

I'd like you to imagine the setting. This was the church in which Dr. King had been baptized. He knew every stone, every pew. He was speaking to his friends and family...people he had known for his entire life, near the college of his choice, Morehouse, in the city of his youth. He was standing at a familiar podium, looking into the faces of people who knew him well.

He began with a story from the Gospel of St. Mark. It is a very revealing parable of service and love, of life's mission and personal calling. Even for those who are not religious, this is a story that has an important lesson of life.

Two disciples approached Jesus. They wanted something simple and easy...they asked to sit at his right hand, so everyone could see that he knew them and that they were exalted above the other disciples. They wanted glory and status, and the power that comes with placement. They wanted to be seen as leaders, as drum majors, those who were appointed and authorized to step forward and march before thousands of followers.

The response was simple, too. Jesus said to his disciples, "whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant; and whosoever of you will be chief, shall be servant of all."

Service....service...service! A simple, difficult, powerful message. A life of giving, not getting. A life of love and charity. That's hard. It does against the instincts. It often challenges our ego, strains the psychology, tears at our passions and need for recognition. As one country singer twanged, "It's hard to be humble." It is very hard. Dr. King knew it wasn't easy. He said that many people have the "drum major instinct," they want to be in front, they want glory and recognition, they want celebrity and fame, and all that goes with these things.

But he reminded his friends and family that the best service is service itself, not the rewards of giving, but the giving, the love and faith and dedication we show in our service, not the certificates or trophies or titles or treasures that are so often used to measure success.

Dr. King reminded his audience that, if we want to lead, we must lead by example, through service, through a life of service, to best benefit one another.

That is why the theme of this luncheon today is so important, so well chosen: "Life's Greatest Challenge: What Are We Doing For Others?" And that is why your donations to D.C.'s homeless mean so much. Through your gifts and actions, you will help provide the means to help others less fortunate, and you lead by example and concern, showing others how to serve well.

Dr. King urged a life of sacrifice and service, not one of self-glorification. He asked that, in our work and in our lives, we reach out to those less fortunate, devote ourselves to a life of giving and generosity. He asked that we respect each person, each life. He asked that we show regard to everyone. Every person is important. No one can be left behind...no one...anyone. He asked that we define a life of greatness by our service and commitment to others.

He said that a life of service doesn't require a PhD or law degree, it requires a high degree of love for one another. He said "You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And you can be that servant."

Yes, we can be that servant. I see that spirit of service here today. And you show that spirit of service every day on the job, here at HUD, working so hard for the American people. I thank you for that...and I also am inspired by your efforts. The Office of Housing and Grant Administration is one the front lines of our nations' efforts to deliver affordable housing to those with low-incomes, the elderly, and the disabled. You work to make our nations' housing efforts equitable and fair. Many of you even go back to your neighborhoods to volunteer or donate to non-profits, faith-based efforts, and local school programs.

I know that you would agree with Dr. King who said that said that, if we have the drum major instinct, that we become drum majors for justice. I see you have already done that...each one of you is a drum major for justice...that is your priority and passion. It is good work...a lasting legacy for our department, the people you serve, and our nation.

We need that effort now, perhaps more than ever. The difficulties of the housing market test our resolve, provide us with historic challenges. And history and the American people will judge us by our response. Let that response be our constant commitment to justice and fairness and equal opportunity.

Toward the end of his speech, Dr. King told us how he wanted to be remembered: "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 righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter....I just want to leave a committed life behind."

Well, he did that. Dr. King was a drum major for justice. And today we celebrate that life, and find renewed inspiration for his words and wisdom, his sacrifice and service. Few Americans ever gave so much to this country, paying with a life cut short and robbed of its years. But Dr. King's legacy lives one, his life continues to touch all Americans and people around the world, people struggling for justice in Eastern Europe, Central Africa, and South America. Dr. King's vision is relevant and vital for the 21st Century. Through your good work here at HUD, he lives in our memories, our actions, and our own service.

Thank you again for inviting me to share this luncheon with you.


Content Archived: January 12, 2012