International Human Rights Day: Jamaica’s Drum Majors for peace and justice

International Human Rights Day (December 10) always seems to take me by surprise every year. On that day, a whole range of issues for Jamaica and the region come crowding in. It’s hard to separate one issue from the next, as they often merge and overlap. This year, the theme was a powerful and simple one: “Dignity, Freedom and Justice for All.”

(Apologies for the rather odd formatting in this post, at times. Technical problems that will hopefully be resolved next time!)

I attended the launch of the art exhibition (and competition) “Artivism for Change,” organised by Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ). It took place at the ROK Hotel in downtown Kingston – the former Oceana, for those who remember. The Saturday evening atmosphere was so relaxing, we stopped at the bar on the way out. The hotel is really worth a visit.

The focus was on “Connecting Art and Advocacy for Social Justice.” The art works each reflect an aspect of human rights – whether children’s rights, environmental justice, ending violence against women, or issues affecting those with mental illness and with disabilities. I have always felt that the arts are an important vehicle for digging deep – both into society’s ills and into its potential, too. A powerful painting, a piece of writing, a short film or even a poem or a dance can bring it all to life. Art touches the heart and soul, and it can move the mind also. It can be a form of activism in itself, or spur others to activism.

Danijah Taylor’s work focusing on environmental justice. (My photo)

I met Danijah Taylor, who has written a book for young adults focusing on the pollution of the Rio Cobre, and the impact it has had on the lives of thousands of poor Jamaicans who depend on its waters; and the threat posed by the bauxite industry to our environment. I was also impressed by the contributions of young people – including students from Campion College, Immaculate Conception High School, Mount Alvernia High School, and William Knibb Memorial High School, among others. Lindxee Collins hopes that her painting will inspire hope for a more equal society, where every human life is valued. Gabrielle Brown sought to express the plight of vulnerable children in her work. Thanks to JFJ’s Communications Officer Keron Brown for putting this project together.

Mickel Jackson speaking at the “Artivism” event. (My photo)

In a sometimes fiery speech, Executive Director of JFJ Mickel Jackson noted that her favourite Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speech is not the famous “I Have a Dream.” It is actually a sermon, preached from the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4, 1968 – just two months before Dr. King’s assassination. The topic was what he called the “Drum Major Instinct,” and you can read the full text here.

What is that instinct? You could say it’s a desire to be noticed, to be seen to be leading and thus taking some kind of moral high ground; and to be recognised for it. Dr. King used a New Testament text as the basis for his sermon. So how to curtail this impulse, which can so easily degenerate into an “ego-trip”? He noted that Jesus turned around this desire to be great, to make an impact. This instinct is absolutely fine, he told his followers, who wanted to be right “up there” with him when the time came for him to be sitting on this throne; but why not be a drum major for peace and justice – for serving others? In other words, he repurposed that instinct into something that would have a positive and transformational impact on society.

In what seemed to be a prophetic statement so close to his death, Dr. King said he himself wanted to be remembered for his life of service. This would be his legacy, he hoped:

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes) 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. (Amen) And that’s all I want to s

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, February 4, 1968.

Once you have taken on the mantle of a drum major, that should not mean that you become an “influence peddler” as Dr. King describes it (or as we would say in 2022, an “influencer”); or an attention-seeking person who pushes him/herself to the fore at the expense of others. There is also a tendency that is still around: that of the “white saviour” – a kind of knight in shining armour, a superiority complex. I am sure we can think of a few examples of this.

That commitment Dr. King speaks of is a hell of a thing. It means not only focus, and drawing on deep reserves of energy, but also expecting (certainly in Jamaica) the condemnation and distortion of one’s messages and motivation. One is accused of self-promotion, of political bias (the last resort of the political tribalists), or even of adherence to some kind of sinister agenda imposed by outside forces. Worst of all, one is accused of not having the best interests of fellow Jamaicans at heart.

At the end of his sermon, Dr. King went back to the New Testament passage he discussed at the beginning:

Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, (Yes) 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.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, February 4, 1968.

An additional quote from Dr. King’s Drum Major speech.
For those who want to push themselves forward, and advocate for others ... How can one aspire to any more than this?

And, for those who ascribe ulterior motives to human rights advocates such as Board Director Reverend Father Sean Major Campbell, Mickel Jackson, Maria Carla Gullotta and others across the country (and there are many working in non-governmental organizations like Woman Inc, Eve for Life, Children First, and more) – I would suggest they read and reflect on this speech. Would you not want to be on the side of those who put themselves out in the “line of fire” daily, fighting back exhaustion and taking the blows, for the sake of their fellow citizens?

It’s about service to others. Our political leaders often describe themselves as our servants. However, forgive me for saying so, but their words and actions do not always reflect this. It seem more like the “hooray for me” aspect of the Drum Major mentality.

In the politicians’ followers, I often see what Dr. King called in his sermon a “joiner” mentality – another possible pitfall of the Drum Major mindset. Jump on the bandwagon, join the chorus, and people will take notice of you. The current tendency, in an atmosphere of heightened crime and insecurity, is to point a finger at human rights advocates and non-government actors in general, as rabble rousers, trying to rock the boat, “defending criminals,” and so on. As Dr. King points out, this self-righteous brigade did the same thing to Jesus, who showed compassion towards prostitutes and thieves. Dr. King himself was repeatedly attacked and “torn down.” It’s nothing new.

Meanwhile, a video has circulated on social media of a young man apparently handcuffed, sitting in the back of a police truck. He has been accused of stealing. What appears to be a police officer is seen swiping at the young man with a switch, hitting him repeatedly. Like a “backra master,” he has taken it upon himself to “teach him a lesson.” Other community members stand and watch, happy that they are not the ones being abused (this time). Most of the “anti-crime” chorus would no doubt applaud this action. They are Dr. King’s “joiners.”

We can, and must, do better. Let’s start with compassion for our fellow man, woman, and child. Walk a few miles in their shoes. We might even be able to create a kinder society, with greater respect for the rule of law – on all sides and in all walks of life. The life of service to others awaits, and what a difference it would make!

2 thoughts on “International Human Rights Day: Jamaica’s Drum Majors for peace and justice

  1. Petchary is so hopeful! Good enough for me to hear of the exhibition “artivisim” and to be taken to the venue in downtown Kingston. I must confess to not having remembered it was Human Rights Day. Petchary, don’t be bothered about those who pillory human rights activists/. Don’t be too bothered about the ‘joiners’ either. If we could just do some more education.


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