Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Street Sweepers” or the Dignity of All Kinds of Labor

The Dignity of Human Labor

Preacher before Civil Rights Activist

It must not be forgotten that before Martin Luther King, Jr. (Ph.D.) became a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, he was a Baptist Minister. Before he gave his eloquent speech “I Have a Dream” at the Lincoln Memorial, he delivered eloquent sermons to his congregation. Thus, Dr. King brought the Bible to bear on the economic, political, moral and social issues of his day.

The Personal and Social Value of Labor

In the following excerpt from one of his sermons, which is relevant to men and women in the 21st century, King stressed the value of all kinds of work, doing it well and with dignity:

“We must discover what we are called to do. And once we discover it, we should set out to do it with all of the strength and all of the power that we have in our systems. And after we’ve discovered what God called us to do, after we’ve discovered our life’s work, we should set out to do that work so well that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. Now, this does not mean that everybody will do the so-called ‘big, recognized’ things of life.

“Very few people will rise to the heights of genius in the arts and the sciences. Very few, collectively, will rise to certain professions. Most of us will have to be content to work in the fields and in the factories and on the streets. But we must see the dignity of all labor.

“I was in Montgomery, Alabama. I went to a shoe shop quite often, known as the Gordon Shoe Shop. And there was a fellow in there that used to shine my shoes and it was just an experience to witness this fellow shining my shoes. He would get that rag, you know, and he could bring music out of it. And I said to myself, ‘This fellow has a Ph.D. in shoe-shining.’

“What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even 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. 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 on the top of a 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. It isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”

The Expression of Dignity in Labor

Similarly, King, speaking to the sanitation workers at the AFSCME Memphis Sanitation Strike on 3 April 1968, a day before his assassination, said,

“[W]henever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.”

Work also takes on dignity by paying a wage that allows a man or woman to care for the needs of his or her family. Kings objects to an employer paying an employee “starvation wages.” But by paying him or her a living wage, the employer says, in effect, to his or her employee,

“I value you not only for what you can do for my business but also as a person, with the human need of taking care of your family and yourself.”

Therefore, for Dr. King, work, human labor — regardless of what kind it is — has meaning. Work takes on dignity by the manner or way in which a person does it. Whether in a big or small way, work makes the world more human and, thereby, a better place in which to live.


I have taken editorial liberty in transcribing Dr. King’s speeches, leaving out the responses of his audience, such as “Yeah,” “that’s right,” etc.