A former flatmate of mine inspired a tradition of reading (and watching) a speech by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This year is “What’s your life’s blueprint?”, which King delivered to students at Philadelphia’s Barratt Junior High School (!) on 26 October 1967. Here are a partial transcript and a full recording of the speech.
The following themes in the speech stand out to me.
Importance of self-worth. Interestingly, and perhaps indicatively, King lists as “number one” a “deep belief in your own dignity, your worth, and your own somebodiness”. This encouragement seems just as relevant today, to all people, as it was in 1967. Also interestingly, in the recorded speech King uses this point as a platform to call attention to and discredit the stigma attached to physical appearance, to attack skin-lightening cosmetics and hair-straightening processes. It is perhaps a measure of the partial social progress we’ve made that today, King’s line “I am black but beautiful” would likely by default use the conjunction “and” in place of “but”.
Power of education. Acknowledging the students’ “economic plight” and challenging living conditions, King exhorts them to “stay in school”. He adamantly believes in the power of education to improve one’s life, by preparing one to walk through the doors of opportunity that he saw beginning to open to more and more people.
Commitment to excellence. King comes across as a fatalist, with references to “discover[ing] what you will be” and “your lot” in life. Let’s leave this aside for now. King goes on to urge listeners to do not their best, not their people’s best, but the best job possible, to “do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it”. I’m not sure how to understand this call, in light of the tension between what one is currently doing; what one wants to do; and what circumstance and society permits one to do, at a particular moment in history. Full disclosure: My thinking on this point is further clouded by ideas in David Graeber’s book Bullshit jobs: A theory, which I recently began reading.