Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Advice On Overspending on a Car

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In one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last sermons before he was assassinated in 1968, he provided some very distinct advice on how much you should spend on a car. It was part of a

King’s sermon — and its inclusion in a RAM Trucks ad from the 2018 Super Bowl — was certainly timely, given today’s political climate, and the controversy surrounding non-violent player protests during the National Anthem.

“The Drum Major Instinct” contains 155 words that RAM Trucks’ ad agency — Highdive— used along with the imagery in the 30 second advertisement, which we’ve quoted from the speech in its entirety from Stanford University’s catalog of MLK’s sermons and public speeches:

If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.

That’s a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. 

You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.

You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve.

You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.

You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve.

You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.

You only need a heart full of grace,  a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

That 155 words is just a tiny slice of the sermon as a whole, though. The entire sermon is 4,989 words.

The piece of the speech that RAM used was about service — about receding from the spotlight and delivering anonymous, unheralded service to your community — is really the opposite of what King describes as the “drum major instinct” in the speech:

It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.

Deep within “The Drum Major Instinct,” King manages to narrow right down to exactly what millions of us do every year: Struggle with the cost of purchasing an automobile.

[T]he drum major instinct is real. And you know what else it causes to happen? It often causes us to live above our means. 

It’s nothing but the drum major instinct. Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income? You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford.

But it feeds a repressed ego.

King goes on to lay out the economics of what a car should cost, and why:

You know, economists tell us that your automobile should not cost more than half of your annual income. So if you make an income of five thousand dollars, your car shouldn’t cost more than about twenty-five hundred.

That’s just good economics. And if it’s a family of two, and both members of the family make ten thousand dollars, they would have to make out with one car. That would be good economics, although it’s often inconvenient.

But so often, haven’t you seen people making five thousand dollars a year and driving a car that costs six thousand? And they wonder why their ends never meet. That’s a fact.

So what did we learn from this sermon? Average income per capita in the United States is $48,150. The average cost of a new car — nothing fancy, just the average — is $35,742, representing 74 percent of the average American’s annual income. The average price of a used car — coming in around $19,400 — is a lot closer to the ideal that Dr. King suggested in his sermon.

Not a bad bit of advice as we remember Dr. King on the national holiday.

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at