The “Street Sweepers Speech” to celebrate MLK Day

The third Monday of January is Martin Luther King Day, a day to celebrate the work of the influential American civil rights leader. It’s still Monday in the United States, so we’d like to take this opportunity to share an excerpt from his sermon known as “The Street Sweepers Speech” where he considers the three dimensions of life: its length, breadth and height. MLK

“Now the thing about the length of life: after accepting ourselves and our tools, 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…

“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 host 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.”


“There will be a day, [and] the question won’t be, ‘How many awards did you get in life?’ Not that day. It won’t be, ‘How popular were you in your social setting?’ That won’t be the question that day. It will not ask how many degrees you’ve been able to get. The question that day will not be concerned with whether you are a ‘Ph.D.’ or a ‘no D.’ It will not be concerned with whether you went to Morehouse or whether you went to ‘No House.’ The question that day will not be, ‘How beautiful is your house?’ The question that day will not be, ‘How much money did you accumulate? How much did you have in stocks and bonds?’ The question that day will not be, ‘What kind of automobile did you have?’ On that day the question will be, ‘What did you do for others?’

“Now I can hear somebody saying, ‘Lord, I did a lot of things in life. I did my job well; the world honored me for doing my job. I did a lot of things, Lord; I went to school and studied hard. I accumulated a lot of money, Lord; that’s what I did.’ It seems as if I can hear the Lord of Life saying, ‘But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was sick, and ye visited me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was in prison, and you weren’t concerned about me. So get out of my face. What did you do for others?’ This is the breadth of life.


“Go out this morning. Love yourself, and that means rational and healthy self-interest. You are commanded to do that. That’s the length of life. Then follow that: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. You are commanded to do that. That’s the breadth of life. And I’m going to take my seat now by letting you know that there’s a first and even greater commandment: “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy strength.” I think the psychologist would just say with all thy personality. And when you do that, you’ve got the [height] of life.

“And when you get all three of these together, you can walk and never get weary. You can look up and see the morning stars singing together, and the sons of God shouting for joy. When you get all of these working together in your very life, judgement will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Full transcript available here.

Image: caboindex on Flickr, used under CC License