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.