Some revolutionaries are primarily concerned with annihilating the old order. They want to burn down everything they see around them, because they are convinced their own beliefs will blossom tall and beautiful from the scorched earth, or simply because they’re convinced nothing could be worse than the society they have condemned to destruction. Revolutionary movements have a long and unfortunate history of insufficiently planning for what comes next.
Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t like that. He was always thinking about the future. He never promised that it would be easy to get to the land of his dreams, once the roadblocks of institutional racism were cleared away. He had high expectations for everyone. When he related his dream of a future in which children would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” he expected their character to be exemplary. Naturally, he invoked God frequently in his speeches, often in the context of how people should be honest with themselves, as they must be honest before a divine judgment that cannot be deceived. When he mentioned God, he was often talking about meeting high standards for thought and conduct. If we’re not reaching for Heaven, then we’re settling for less.
In one of his less well-known speeches, Dr. King beautifully emphasized the importance of hard work, spiritual effort, and pride in achievement. “Even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper,” he told his audience at a Chicago church, “go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweet streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the host of Heaven and earth will have to pause and say, Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”
Later in the same speech, he linked this quest for personal excellence to concern for others, and membership in a healthy community, by declaring that “a man has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow confines of his own individual concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
What’s he saying here? Is he telling people to settle for menial labor – shut up, push your broom, and be happy with your miserable lot in life?
Not at all. What Dr. King was extolling is the virtue of finding honor and fulfillment in the calling of our labor, no matter what it happens to be. Somebody has to sweep those streets, after all. Crummy jobs can be a stepping stone to better things. And even lousy jobs should be a source of honor and personal fulfillment to those who do them well. That’s also an obligation on society: we should not treat essential labor as humiliating, degrading, or pointless. The Beethoven of street sweepers deserves our respect.
And only by doing our jobs well can we extend our concern to the welfare of humanity in a meaningful way. Those who lack a strong work ethic, and the accompanying sense of personal responsibility, are not well-equipped for spiritual crusades. It’s a long walk to the future, so everyone had better be prepared to carry their own freight.
It’s no accident that Dr. King spoke about personal fulfillment first, telling people to “be the best of whatever you are.” He explicitly described this as the “first dimension” of life, which must be kept in order before it can be expanded to the higher dimensions of concern for others, and ultimately “the upward reach for God.” This is reminiscent of the way airline passengers are told to take care of their own oxygen masks first in an emergency, before acting to help others. We must build our strength before we can share it, and only our shared strength can create the foundation to build a nation that might aspire towards Heaven.
Unlike history’s less successful revolutionaries, King was a big fan of common sense. Common sense is the hallmark of people who want to improve society, rather than burning it down or twisting it into some grotesque ideological shape. The call to personal fulfillment and productive labor is a call to become a useful part of society, rather than a perpetual agitator filled with grievance and defiance. That’s a key difference between happy warriors and angry demonstrators.
We are much concerned with assimilation in America today, generally in the context of assimilating new immigrants to our society. Native-born children have to assimilate, too. Sometimes they don’t . It’s human nature for young people to feel rebellious, but when they grow up, rebellion should be bent to noble purpose, converting the youthful critique of society into a precision tool for making it better. Perpetual rebellion sours into anarchy, the creation of toxic sub-cultures, and ultimately the extension of adolescence, at the expense of productive life. That sickness is nourished by a society that doesn’t expect people to grow up, the way Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged everyone – both individually, and as a nation – to grow up. His talk of Shakespearean street sweeping is language for adults, wasted on the ears of children, who will have a tough time getting past the initial response of “Street sweeping sucks.”
Children who think street sweeping isn’t worth their time might not be able to find a productive niche in society. They aren’t inspired to continue the difficult search for such a niche, if they’re told they don’t have to. People who work together come to understand each other, and understanding is the light that banishes shadowy prejudice. Less work means less understanding. Nothing naturally and organically contains the process of assimilation better than the quest to find a job, and excel at it.
If you’re not reaching for Heaven, you’re settling for less. That truth is not diluted by the inevitable discovery that reaching for Heaven is hard, because it rides so high above the tide of human misfortune and failure. A child who absorbs that difficult lesson, and takes it as inspiration to redouble his efforts, becomes an adult. This is true of individual people, communities, and nations.
There is encouraging news on the economic front over the fifty years since the “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered. The black middle class has grown five times larger. The number of black college graduates is ten times higher. The poverty rate has been cut in half. Clearly, there is more work to be done… but then, there always will be, in every practical and spiritual theater, if we set our standards to their proper lofty heights. It wouldn’t be right to boil social issues down to simple economic formulas… but on the other hand, real people have to live in the everyday world, and their lives are naturally shaped by its hard, cold contours.
We’ll probably never be able to fill every human mind with nothing but light, but what we strive for matters as much as what we achieve. What lurks in the depths of our hearts is not as important as what we build with our hands. Constructive people have no patience for the folly of racial prejudice, for it robs them of customers and co-workers, bleeding away the strength we need to stand as plausible champions of human welfare. On the day that everyone, of every color, young and old, decides racism is a sin they just can’t afford to indulge, it will be vanquished at last. Blessed are the street sweepers, for they will end racism.