The day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Barratt Junior High
And asked the teens: What is your life’s blueprint?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968. The next day King was assassinated on his motel balcony. [Associated Press]
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968. The next day King was assassinated on his motel balcony. [Associated Press]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 18, 2021|Updated Jan. 18, 2021

On Oct. 26, 1967, six months before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Philadelphia for a star-studded event at the Spectrum arena. But earlier in the day, King squeezed in a brief appearance at Philadelphia’s Barratt Junior High School. Unlike many of his major addresses, King used the occasion to speak directly to the teenagers, imploring them to recognize their self-worth and the choices they faced at the dawn of their lives. Here is an except.

Members of the faculty and members of the student body of Barratt Junior High School, ladies and gentlemen.

I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here today, and to have the opportunity of taking a very brief break in a pretty busy schedule in the city of Philadelphia, to share with you the students of Barratt Junior High School. And I’m being very honest; I’m going to be brief because I have other engagements. I don’t have a tradition of being brief all the time. You know I’m a Baptist preacher, and we can talk a long time, but I’m going to be really brief today.

I want to ask you a question, and that is: What is in your life’s blueprint?

This is the most important and crucial period of your lives. For what you do now and what you decide now at this age may well determine which way your life shall go.

And whenever a building is constructed, you usually have an architect who draws a blueprint. And that blueprint serves as the pattern, as the guide, as the model, for those who are to build the building. And a building is not well erected without a good, sound, and solid blueprint.

Now each of you is in the process of building the structure of your lives, and the question is: whether you have a proper, a solid and a sound blueprint.

And I want to suggest some of the things that should be in your life’s blueprint.

Number one in your life’s blueprint should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth and your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you are nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.

Now that means you should not be ashamed of your color. You know, it’s very unfortunate that in so many instances, our society has placed a stigma on the Negro’s color. You know there are some Negroes who are ashamed of themselves? Don’t be ashamed of your color. Don’t be ashamed of your biological features.

Somehow you must be able to say in your own lives, and really believe it: I am Black but beautiful. You need not be lured into purchasing cosmetics advertised to make you lighter, neither do you need to process your hair to make it appear straight. I have good hair and it is as good as anybody else’s hair in the world.

Secondly, in your life’s blueprint you must have as the basic principle the determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor. You’re going to be deciding as the days and the years unfold, what you will do in life — what your life’s work will be.

And once you discover what it will be, set out to do it, and to do it well.

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And I say to you, my young friends, that doors are opening to each of you — doors of opportunity are opening to each of you that were not open to your mothers and your fathers — and the great challenge facing you is to be ready to enter these doors as they open.

And so I would urge you to study hard, to burn the midnight oil. I would say to you, don’t drop out of school. And I understand all of the sociological reasons why we often drop out of school.

But I urge you in spite of your economic plight, in spite of the situation that you are forced to live so often with intolerable conditions, stay in school.

And when you discover what you’re going to be in life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. And just don’t set out to do a good Negro job but do a good job that anybody could do.

Don’t set out to be just a good Negro doctor, a good Negro lawyer, a good Negro school teacher, a good Negro preacher, a good Negro barber, a beautician, a good Negro skilled laborer … for if you set out to do that, you have already flunked your matriculation exam for entrance into the University of Integration.

Set out to do a good job and do that job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn couldn’t do it any better.

If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera, and 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 the 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. For it isn’t by size that you win or you fail. Be the best of whatever you are.

We already have some noble examples of Black men and Black women who demonstrated to us that human nature cannot be catalogued. From an old slave cabin of Virginia’s hills, Booker T. Washington rose up to be one of America’s great leaders. He lit a torch in Alabama and darkness fled in that setting.

Yes, you should know this because it’s in your own city. From a poverty-stricken area of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Marian Anderson rose up to be the world’s greatest contralto so that a Toscanini could say that a voice like this comes only once in a century, and Sibelius of Finland could say my roof is too low for such a voice.

From the Red Hills of Gordon County, Georgia and the arms of a mother who could neither read nor write, Roland Hayes rose up to be one of the world’s great singers and carried his melodious voice into the palaces and mansions of kings and queens.

And finally, in your life’s blueprint must be a commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love, and justice. Don’t allow anybody to pull you so low as to make you hate them.

Don’t allow anybody to cause you to lose your self-respect to the point that you do not struggle for justice. However young you are, you have a responsibility to seek to make your nation a better nation in which to live.

You have a responsibility to seek to make life better for everybody. And so you must be involved in the struggle for freedom and justice.

Now in this struggle for freedom and justice, there are many constructive things that we all can do and that we all must do. And we must not give ourselves to those things which will not solve our problems.

You’ve heard the word “non-violent” and you’ve heard the word “violent.” I happen to believe in non-violence. We’ve struggled with this method with young people and adults alike all over the South. And we have won some significant victories. And we’ve got to struggle with it all over the north because the problems are as serious in the north as they are in the south.

And so our slogan must not be “Burn, baby, burn,” it must be “Build, baby, build.” Organize, baby, organize.

Yes, our slogan must be “Learn, baby, learn” so that we can earn, baby, earn.

I believe that we can transform dark yesterdays of injustice into bright tomorrows of justice and humanity. Let us keep going toward the goal of selfhood, toward brotherhood, and toward the realization of the dream of understanding and goodwill. Let nobody stop us.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news