Dr. June Dobbs Butts, a retired family counselor and sex therapist, is the youngest daughter of the late Atlanta civil rights leader John Wesley Dobbs. She recounts the backstory of Martin Luther King’s drum major for justice theme. (LOUIE FAVORITE / AJC)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The little-known story of MLK's ‘drum major for justice’

I hope to offer a new perspective on the controversy created by the eminent writer Dr. Maya Angelou, who recently criticized an inscription on the statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The statue is part of the memorial being dedicated today at the National Mall. The sculptor included a quote from the Rev. King: “I was a Drum Major for Justice.”

Dr. Angelou feels the quote makes the Rev. King sound uncharacteristically pompous. I believe the quote illustrates King’s dedication to peace, his larger-than-life spirituality and his concern for all oppressed people.

I recognize the zest and fervor behind those words that King truly made into his own. But perhaps that is because I grew up with M.L. (as everybody called him) and I know the story behind the quote.

M.L. and I entered college early and shared sociology classes with a zest for life and a nobility of purpose. In June 1948, I graduated from Spelman College, turning 20 the next week. M.L. graduated from Morehouse College a day or so later, but wouldn’t turn 20 for six more months. We had been told by our esteemed sociology professor, Dr. Ira DeA. Reid, that he had accepted a position at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. M.L. and I had bemoaned the “brain drain” of black professors being wooed from historically black colleges to white universities that offered better pay. Our favorite professor softened the blow by asking M.L. and me to work for him that summer before we, too, would be leaving for “somewhere up North.”

Dr. Reid brought M.L. and me to Haverford for a two-week training session devoted to interviewing skills. We were trained with 25 other young people, mostly seminarians, from around the country. We were assigned to a project interviewing black Baptist ministers in our hometowns.

Back in Georgia, M.L. and I started our interviews with enthusiasm. M.L. also scheduled another appointment with my father, John Wesley Dobbs. Although M.L. had been a welcome visitor in our home for years, he set up a formal interview in Dad’s office on Auburn Avenue, the heart of Atlanta’s black business district. Daddy referred to the street as “Sweet Auburn,” based on a line of poetry. He said it was the money generated by black businesses — banks, churches, restaurants and offices of every stripe — that made the street “sweet.” Years later, his grandson, Mayor Maynard Jackson, renamed a street in the neighborhood for my father in honor of his pioneering work in voter registration throughout Georgia.

John Wesley Dobbs, prominent Atlanta businessman.
Photo: COPY

When he met with Dad, M.L. quickly came to the point. He wanted Dad’s permission to cite a “crowd clincher” that Daddy used in his oratory, a Civil War anecdote known to “bring down the house.” M.L. explained that he wanted to “put the story through my own filter.” That delighted Dad and he became M.L.’s advocate thereafter.

Dad and the Rev. King Sr. had clashed before over civic issues. For example, my father tried to dissuade the Rev. King Sr. from allowing the glorious Ebenezer Baptist Church choir to participate in the premiere of “Gone With the Wind” in downtown Atlanta. My father and others formed a committee that pleaded with black churches to avoid the premiere of this movie, a requiem for slavery. Nevertheless, Ebenezer took part, and a young M.L. was among the choir members who sang outside the Fox Theatre providing “atmosphere.”

It was years later that M.L., now a college graduate, arranged that meeting with my father. He had the authority and good manners to ask permission to make the anecdote speak for him; he had a nobility of purpose that few would recognize in a 19-year-old.

When Daddy came home for dinner, he was ecstatic: “M.L. made a business appointment with me and came to my office, all dressed up in a shirt and tie, a jacket and a hat!” (Such formality in our 90-degree Georgia heat!) “And he asked my permission to use one of my little Civil War stories. I was never more pleased. That boy is going go far in life!”

Now I’ll tell the Civil War story.

Toward the end of the war, the Union Army was facing grave danger. One general’s crack platoon fell into an ambush that cut them off from the main army. The commanding general sent word down the line.

“Tell the drummer boy to beat a retreat!”

Precious seconds passed and nothing was heard except screams and cries of wounded and dying soldiers.

John Wesley Dobbs Elementary in Atlanta is also a voting precinct.
Photo: John Spink / AJC

Unable to watch his valiant men being slaughtered, the general galloped down the line until he glimpsed the petrified drum major standing still as though transfixed.

“BOY!” the general roared. “What’s wrong wid ya? Didn’t you get my command to beat a retreat?”

“Yuh, yuh, yes SIR!” answered the boy. “But sir, I don’t know how.”

“What do you mean? How long have you been with me?”

“Three years, SIR!” sobbed the boy.

“Dammit boy, what commands do you know?”

The drummer straightened up and replied, “With you, sir, I have only beat a forward march!”

Throwing his hat on the ground, the general shouted. “Well dammit boy, go and beat that forward march!”

The drummer leapt into action, the troops resumed their positions, and they all marched into battle.

When Dad told this story, his audiences always shouted their approval at this point. And my father would strut up and down the platform. He would come to a complete stop, stage center, with arms stretched outward, and he would stand there beaming, maybe hitch up his pants a little, then resume his embrace of the audience.

When the audience calmed down, Dad, still beaming, would say, “Ladies and gentlemen!”

Then, louder, “Brothers and sisters!”

“I don’t know what really happened that day on that bloody battlefield. Did the brave Yankee soldiers win that battle or did they lose it? I don’t know.”

And he would wait a few seconds as his face became serious. The audience would hold its breath.

Daddy would start speaking again as though in a conversation.

“All I really know [big pause] is that the Union Army went on to victory and won the war.”

John Wesley Dobbs is depicted in one of the letters spelling out “Peachtree” in new bridge signage along Peachtree Street between Ralph McGill Boulevard and Pine Street.

Pandemonium would break out as his audience stamped their feet, clapped, yelled, whistled and shouted their approval for their victory.

Daddy would beam again, with his arms stretched out as he delivered his benediction.

“My friends, I just want to be a drummer boy in God’s army!”

Then the audience would bring down the house.

My friend M.L. envisioned being a drum major for justice. And he truly is, even today.

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