Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor, activist, leader and civil rights icon. He changed our world for the better, and each January we honor his legacy.
In particular, we’d like to highlight what Martin Luther King Jr. taught about work. In 1956, King gave a speech in Montgomery, AL. He looked back at the success of the Montgomery bus boycotts, and he looked forward to a new world in which he “all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.”
In this speech, he offered specific suggestions about how people should view their work. King’s words still ring true today.
A second challenge that the new age brings to each of us is that of achieving excellency in our various fields of endeavor. In the new age many doors will be opening to us that were not opened in the past, and the great challenge which we confront is to be prepared to enter these doors as they open. Ralph Waldo Emerson said in an essay back in 1871, ‘If a man can write a better book or preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse trap than his neighbor, even if he builds his house in the woods the world will make a beaten path to his door.’
In the new age we will be forced to compete with people of all races and nationalities. Therefore, we cannot aim merely to be good Negro teachers, good Negro doctors, good Negro ministers, good Negro skilled laborers. We must set out to do a good job, irrespective of race, and do it so well that nobody could do it better.
Whatever your life’s work is, do it well. Even if it does not fall in the category of one of the so-called big professions, do it well. As one college president said, ‘A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.’ If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; 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.’
From “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” address delivered at the First Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change on Dec. 3 1956, Montgomery Alabama. (In The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume III: Birth of a New Age, December 1955-December 1956, University of California Press, 1997)