King on how man should live and work

Printed in today’s New York Post and elsewhere is an excerpt from a talk Martin Luther King gave at a junior high school in Philadelphia in October, 1967. Notwithstanding the fact that this was in the later, openly socialist period of King’s career, the talk, or at least this section of it, is not leftist, victimological, or resentful. It is spiritual. What he treats as the highest object is not equality—neither the individual-rights equality that he espoused in his earlier years nor the group-results equality that he pushed in his later years. What he treats as the highest object is excellence. He calls on young people to be the best they can possibly be, no matter how humble their station in life. It is the very opposite of a leftist vision.

What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?

Six months before he was assassinated, King spoke to a group of students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia on October 26, 1967.

I want to ask you a question, and that is: What is your life’s blueprint?

Whenever a building is constructed, you usually have an architect who draws a blueprint, and that blueprint serves as the pattern, as the guide, and a building is not well erected without a good, solid blueprint.

Now each of you is in the process of building the structure of your lives, and the question is whether you have a proper, a solid and a sound blueprint.

I want to suggest some of the things that should begin your life’s blueprint. Number one in your life’s blueprint, should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your worth and your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you fell that you’re nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.

Secondly, in your life’s blueprint you must have as the basic principle the determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor. You’re going to be deciding as the days, as the years unfold what you will do in life—what your life’s work will be. Set out to do it well.

And I say to you, my young friends, doors are opening to you—doors of opportunities that were not open to your mothers and your fathers—and the great challenge facing you is to be ready to face these doors as they open.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great essayist, said in a lecture in 1871, “If a man can write a better book or preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, even if he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”

This hasn’t always been true—but it will become increasingly true, and so I would urge you to study hard, to burn the midnight oil; I would say to you, don’t drop out of school. I understand all the sociological reasons, but I urge you that in spite of your economic plight, in spite of the situation that you’re forced to live in—stay in school.

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.

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.

- end of initial entry -

January 19

Tiberge of Galliawatch writes:

I remember that speech well. I wasn’t a teacher at Barratt—I was in a high school in West Philadelphia, but we all knew he had said “burn the midnight oil.” The next year all hell broke loose—it was 1968 and King would not live to see 1969. In my high school, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, chaos reigned as it did on college campuses and on the streets of Paris and other European cities. We tried to use that speech as a means of “inspiring” and motivating the students to do their work and to aim for something higher than the destructiveness they were indulging in. Back then there was still some hope that this was all temporary and that by necessity things would return to normal. But King was viewed by the “revolutionaries” as a traitor—a “kisser” as they called anyone who was civilized and obedient to the rules and standards that had governed us for so long. Loud boos greeted his name in the school assemblies, just as loud boos greeted anything patriotic, be it the national anthem, the pledge, or a speech by any authority figure—policeman, principal, especially if it was a black person. They expected whites to act like whites, but they hated blacks who acted like whites.

All of that occurred after he was killed. At the time of the assassination there was a general uprising by “black power” activists, followed by a rapid change in the racial makeup of the school and an equally rapid deterioration in academic standards. In very short order, King became an enemy of the black power activists and his name became almost a joke, as I described above. They wanted Eldridge Cleaver and Dick Gregory and Angela Davis, not King. We really didn’t mention him much for several years.

In time he returned to public favor in the schools because the kids didn’t know who he was! But his new image was that of a two-dimensional type of ethnic hero, not the very real, all-too-human, and interesting man who had given that speech. By the time I retired in 1995, the man behind the name of Martin Luther King had been replaced by a sort of a god, about whom nobody knew anything specific, except that he had worked to oppose white racism.

His exhortations to study, to burn the midnight oil, to improve oneself through willful effort were trampled upon by the left with its welfare, its affirmative action and all the rest that you know so well … No black kid today can grasp the meaning behind the words of his “street sweeper” metaphor. They would remain in stoney silence at his references to Beethoven and Michelangelo, since they probably don’t know who they are. They would howl with derision if they DID know who they were, because the comparison with the greats of white European culture would be regarded as racist. They would be outraged at the idea of being a street sweeper, since they regard poverty itself as an insult, and any implication that they are poor usually elicits hostility. They would be outraged at the idea that they might have to settle for something less than what they think they are entitled to. They have been taught to reject the idea that men are born with unequal gifts, intelligence and ambitions, and they would never understand the more elevated meaning of equality. To them, equality means lots of money and power. They will settle for nothing less than Harvard, a six-digit starting salary and the White House! In other words, ignorance and easy wealth. When they perceive that they cannot achieve easily what they thought was rightfully theirs, they become violent (or indolent)—the antithesis of his speech at Barratt. They have regressed downward, while King tried to inspire them to move up, not just materially, but spiritually and culturally (at least in that speech).

Teachers I know tell me that the schools are much worse than they were in 1995 when I left. I truly cannot imagine that, but I know they aren’t exaggerating.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 18, 2010 11:51 PM | Send

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