Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” speech to students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia. In it, he lays out three important steps to follow in order for the students to reach their full potential, no matter their status life, and calls on them to actively commit to the struggle for freedom and justice. King’s words are inspirational for students of any age, of any era. Especially now during our troubled times. In honor of the speech’s anniversary, we’re looking at the ways the empowering message of his speech resonates and guides us still today.
“Number one in your life’s blueprint should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth, and your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you are nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth. And always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”
King emphasizes to the students how imperative it is for them to not be ashamed of themselves, to not be ashamed of being Black. Their lives have value. Nowhere else do we see the embodiment of King’s affirmation of Black worth and dignity today than the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Secondly, in your life’s blueprint, you must have as a basic principle the determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor....If it falls to 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. And 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.’”
King zeroes in on the street sweeper, a recurring image in his others speeches, to make a crucial point: whatever one’s profession may be, strive to be the absolute best at it. Through dedication, one attains the invaluable reward of self-realization. The street sweeper serves as a source of inspiration that will carry King’s student audience (and all of us) through their lives. King continues his point about doing one’s best within one’s limits as he says:
“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 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 the sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or you fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”
“And finally, and finally, in your life’s blueprint, must be a commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love, and justice....However young you are, you have a responsibility to seek to make your nation a better nation in which to live. You have a responsibility to seek to make life better for everybody. And so you must be involved in the struggle of freedom and justice.”
We need not look further back than the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, to see that the history of intolerance and hate is not distant history. White supremacists and other bigots have felt emboldened by the current administration to take to the streets and act on their prejudice. By the time King delivered his speech, he had already spoken out about the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Active nonviolent resistance, of course, is the method he promoted to fight bigotry and injustice. He encouraged his student audience to commit to nonviolent protest to effect social change, and would advise us to do the same.
“But I believe as we struggle with these problems, we’ve got to struggle with them with a method that can be militant but at the same time does not destroy life or property. And so our slogan must not be ‘Burn, baby, burn.’ It must be, ‘Build, baby, build.’ ‘Organize, baby, organize.’ Yes, our slogan must be ‘Learn, baby, learn,’ so that we can earn, baby, earn.”
King gave us the steps to draft the blueprints for a future we’ll have to build, again and again, which each new generation, in order to strive for the just society that we want. This is a world we’re building together, and it won’t become a reality without collaboration, education, and rallying together for change. His words will always be timely, because the struggle for social justice is ongoing. With this blueprint, we can keep moving forward. As he states at the end of his speech, “We must keep going. If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving.”
As Walter Dean Myers said in his introduction to A Time to Break Silence: The Essential Works of Martin Luther King, Jr., for Students, in which this speech is reprinted:
“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would enlist an army of young people to help each other and America in the education process. He would trust them to bring their energy and sense of justice to end gang violence and to reverse the feeling of helplessness that hurts so many of our young people. He would keep marching against unjust laws, racism, war, and poverty. Dr. King made America a better place for all people to live during the turbulent years of the civil rights struggle. Using his insights, his courage in tackling difficult problems, and his loyalty to nonviolence both in action and in the language we use with each other, perhaps we can continue building the America he once thought possible. What do you think?”
Watch the speech online and share it with the young people in your life. Talk with them about how King’s words make them feel. Ask them what their life’s blueprint is.
Video used by permission of The School District of Philadelphia. All rights reserved.
About Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), Nobel Peace Prize laureate and architect of the nonviolent civil rights movement, was among the twentieth century’s most influential figures. One of the greatest orators in US history, King also authored several books, including Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, and Why We Can’t Wait. His speeches, sermons, and writings are inspirational and timeless. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.