MLK: “Be the Best Street Sweeper You Can Be”

It’s shocking to know that Martin Luther King, Jr. said the following considering that if a white person said it he would be called – wait for it – a racist and told that he was demeaning blacks and being stereotypical:

“And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.

“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts 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 at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.street sweeper

“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 a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”

The above is from a speech that was given by MLK to a group of students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia on October 26, 1967.

You may recall that Newt Gingrich said that poor children should work as janitors in their schools to gain work experience. He was raked over the political coals for the comment. Juan Williams brought up the former Congressman’s comments in one of the GOP debates:

“Speaker Gingrich, you recently said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. You also said poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools. Can’t you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?”

Didn’t MLK say as much? He actually said more. He referenced God: “set out to do it as if God Almighty called you.” This is incredible. MLK actually said that God might have called someone to be a street sweeper. Use whatever job you can find to be the best at it. People will notice, and if they don't, use one job as a stepping stone to another. And if that doesn't work, then make your own way.

Vivien Thomas

Dr. Vivien Thomas (1910-1985)

Vivien Thomas, who to become a cardiac surgery pioneer and a teacher of operative techniques to many of the country's most prominent surgeons at Johns Hopkins, started out cleaning out dog cages and was paid as a janitor. He was the first African American without a doctorate to perform open heart surgery on a white patient in the United States. You can learn about his remarkable story in the television film based on his life entitled Something The Lord Made.

Can you imagine if a Republican had said such a thing today? God would never call anybody to be a street sweeper or a janitor. He wants you to be a professional basketball player or a rapper. Don’t demean yourself with a lowly job as a janitor. You can make more money on welfare for selling drugs.

God called me to be a janitor for a time. I worked in a grocery store stocking shelves, putting out produce, and cleaning out bins of rotting potatoes and watermelons. One summer I washed pots and pans 8 hours a day, six days a week. When I was in college, I worked two jobs. One was at a gas station. When I graduated from college, my transportation was a bicycle. I used it for work, grocery shopping, and carting my dirty clothes to the laundry mat. Jobs were scarce. I took any job I could get. While in graduate school, I worked as a custodian. I did a lot of sweeping, and I was damn good at it.


About Gary DeMar
Gary is a graduate of Western Michigan University (1973) and earned his M.Div. at Reformed Theological Seminary in 1979. He is the author of countless essays, news articles, and more than 27 book titles.
  • joe

    MakmoodAminajad was a street sweeper.

    • Dustin

      I thought he drove a taxi in New York City.

  • jr1776

    Thats all these people will ever do is dream, too stupid too lazy,and want everything for nothing.

  • The Bob

    Mr. King realized we can not all be president, but we have the responsibility to be the best at what we are and do. I think I'll call that common sense, seems there is little of that today, no one takes responsibility for their actions, we are a Nation of hand outs and I wants, the problem is it will not last, the system will fail and when it does pray to God there are people with common sense to pick up the pieces, we don't need Obama's, Jackson's, Sharpton's, Reid's Pelosi's as example, we will need MLK's, Reagan's, Gingrich's, etc.

  • freedixie

    How can anyone remain so uneducated as to not know the truth about MLK? He had communist connections, was a womanizer, plagiarized his doctoral thesis, and his “peaceful” marches were NOT peaceful. The Tulsa Fire Department did riot training in preparation for his planned visit to Tulsa, but he was persuaded not to come to Tulsa. It is a disgrace that a holiday is named after this fraud.

    • KayDeeBeau

      Liar...

      • Steven

        Lying is defined as KNOWINGLY making false statements. Freedixie has been lied to and bought the lie.

  • Photon

    Gary makes excellent points.

    When I was a student, I took jobs that many others in society considered to be 'beneath their dignity'. Sweeping, clearing urine-filled wine bottles from tavern parking lots on Sunday mornings, and other stuff that was essentially the duties of a medieval Gong Fermor. But being willing to do 'demeaning' work for an opportunity at education, eventually paid dividends, and those dividends in turn seemed to raise the ire of people who were continuing to fill more wine bottles from their welfare checks.

  • Blueviolets

    Seems to be inspiring words for people of all colors.

  • conservative senior

    Recall the slavery of Abraham Lincoln's time. Obama has reinstated it. He calls it entitlement. Reality is slavery when you cannot read words beyond yo and ho or write and have it make sense and feel drugs are power and family is just a six letter word, to those who can spell. That is what Obama has given to the minority races. WELFARE and grades which are inflated to make the idiots feel smart. You earned your place as a slave of OBAMA the MASSA. Way to go MASSA O

  • Jan

    I think he meant....what ever your job do the best you can. Which is true. Thats how you move up. Too many are entitled today...and don't think work is in their vocabulary. Its gimme gimme gimme.