As I write this, it is the actual birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Had he not been cut down by an assassin, he would have been 85 today. Here in Athens, we have events on both Saturday the 18th and Monday the 20th to commemorate and celebrate his life, as is fitting. And, as has been the case since he became a household name, both major political parties are going to try to leverage his legacy for their own furtherance while attempting to be culturally relevant. My purpose here, however, is to talk about a little known presentation given by Dr. King shortly before he died that has become known as the Street Sweeper Speech. In my view, it is as powerful a speech as any one he ever gave.
I was 9 when I watched him give the I Have A Dream speech on our old, boxy black and white TV. A few months later I was horrified by the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham when little girls my age were blown up in what is supposed to be a safe place–a church. I remember when he received the Nobel Peace prize, and fuming silently at the dinner table as my grandmother, who was raised in part by a former slave, said he should be locked up. I gave a good portion of my youth to passionate involvement in the Civil Rights movement in Seattle, had my life threatened for doing so, and remember the sadness I felt as I watched the movement fall apart, beginning, in my opinion, with Stokely Carmichael calling for violence, and denigrating into something Dr. King would have despised, secular social engineering and a demand for dependency.
Here is what he said in part:
What I am saying to you this morning my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.’
If you can’t be a pine on the top of the hill, be a scrub in the valley, but be the best little scrub on the side of the ridge, be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail, if you can’t be the sun, be a star. It isn’t by size that you win or you fail, be the best of whatever you are.”
Then he went on to slap the snot out of what has become our corporate obsession with our own importance that of late has spawned several industries, and has subtly invaded our pulpits. “This onward push toward the end of self-fulfillment is the end of a person’s life….[people] try to live as though no one else lives in the world but themselves, and they use everybody as mere tools to get to where they’re going. They don’t love anybody but themselves, and the only kind of love that they have for other people is utilitarian love, you know, they love people that they can use….these people don’t work out well in life.”
That’s a true word, and as we remember him, let’s do what he said, irrespective of how much melanin is in our skin or which lever we pull in the voting booth.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner