King and the dignity of manual labor

Forty-five years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. He had gone there to support the striking sanitation workers.

It might seem strange that he had gone to support a struggle of workers, this man who spoke against segregation and racism, who protested the Vietnam war and US militarism. Yet I think support for workers was central to his Christian understanding of the human person and the dignity of work.

I heard Dr. King in person once, about 1965, in a church in North Philadelphia. A friend and I were two of the few white faces there, but I felt at home. When King came he spoke strongly of the value of the human person.

I remember well one part of his speech, which I found in a sermon he gave in 1956:

Whatever is your life’s work, do it well. 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 hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

This struck home to me and has affected my life and my ministry in profound ways.

When I worked with college students I used this quote in my talk on the Antioch retreat to emphasize the dignity of all work as sharing in the work of God.

Here in Honduras this quote inspires me in my work with the poor to treat all of them with deep respect and to help them see the dignity and worth of all they do.

Since I’ve been here I’ve always greeted the street sweepers in Santa Rosa who pick up the litter on the streets. Some of them respond and a few months ago, one woman greeted me warmly and told me she wondered if I was still there.

In the countryside it’s also very important to affirm the dignity of manual labor – in the home, in the fields, building houses. The people in the countryside are looked down upon – “people of the mountains” [“hillbillies”], as one politician called them a few years ago. But they have an inestimable dignity in the eyes of God and their work is important.

And so Martin Luther King challenges us to respect the worth of all labor, especially manual labor, as he challenges us to work to rid the world of racism and war.

May his words and his actions inspire us to be with the marginalized of this world, respecting them, and helping them see the dignity of their lives and their work.

A personal note:
Only recently have I realized why affirming the dignity of all work is so much a part of me. My parents, who grew up in the depression, never finished high school. They both began as blue collar workers. My dad was promoted to the office because of his skills, including an incredible ability to do complicated mathematical calculations in his head. I grew up in a lower middle class, mostly blue collar, neighborhood and I finished college at the University of Scranton where many of my classmates were the first to attend college in their families, as was I. My roots in the blue collar worker of the lower middle class have, thanks be to God, survived many years of education and even professional work in the church and the university.





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