One recurring theme in many of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s speeches that always inspires involves the job of street sweeper as a parable for self-fulfillment. I’ve always admired Dr. King’s ability to affect not just churchgoers or civil rights activists but humans of all kinds, secular and otherwise, and the “street sweeper” element and its metaphorical allusions to the arts is my favorite example of this.
…[E]ven if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry…
This sentiment is reminiscent of the anonymously-penned poems, “Be the Best of Whatever You Are,” (often attributed to Douglas Malloch) which Dr. King cites in the sermon. In my searches tonight reflecting on Dr. King, I really appreciated how he introduced the street sweeper at the 50th anniversary of Alpha Phi Alpha in Buffalo, 1957 – “The Birth of a New Age.” A great blueprint for any commencement speech.
“We need more people who are competent in all areas and always remember that the important thing is to do a good job. No matter what it is. Whatever you are doing consider it as something having cosmic significance, as it is a part of the uplifting of humanity. No matter what it is, no matter how small you think it is, do it right. As someone said, do it so well that the living, dead, or the unborn could do it no better.
More and more multimedia from Dr. King’s sermons and speeches in the ’50s and 60s continues to crop up and it’s sometimes stunning how much more impact the words have when spoken by the reverend himself as opposed to reads on the written page or website.
I could not find the Buffalo ’57 audio, however I came across audio of a King speech that includes the street sweeper riff in the King Institute archives at Stanford. This 3.5-minute clip was taken from the full “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” sermon delivered at New Covenant Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, on 9 April 1967. Another recently web-published sermon of note is this one from Temple Israel, a Jewish synagogue in Hollywood from 1965 which popped up a few years ago.
In addition to the King Institute archives, find more audio of Dr. King’s speeches here, here, and here.