Martin Luther King Jr.’s Powerful Message to Cleveland Students
Dr. Martin Luther King made more than a dozen visits to Cleveland between 1956 and 1967.
He came to report on the Montgomery bus boycott and raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He came to organize tenant unions, register voters, and plan protests. He spoke in churches, hotel ballrooms, and parking lots.
On April 26, 1967 he spoke at Glenville High School to an auditorium full of young, mostly black students.
The recording of that speech almost didn’t survive. It was found among discarded library materials by an art teacher in 2010.
In it, Dr. King encourages and inspires a community that had endured years of racism, segregation, and violence. He urges his listeners to work hard, to participate, and – perhaps most importantly – to believe that they are somebody.
Sherida Freeman (née Foster), then a senior at Glenville High School, shakes hands with Martin Luther King Jr. before his speech. "It was wild," she says of meeting Dr. King over 50 years ago. [Source: The Cleveland Public Library]
Martin Luther King Jr.'s Glenville High School speech (listen above):
How very delighted I am to be here this morning and to have the great privilege and opportunity of sharing with you and being with you here in the city of Cleveland. I never feel like a stranger when I come to Cleveland because I have so many dear friends here in the ministry and in the community and so I always look forward to coming to Cleveland with great and eager anticipation. I certainly want to thank the administration for the opportunity and I want to thank Miss. Williams for those very kind words of introduction.
As she was introducing me, I felt something like the old maid who had never been married. And one day she went to work and the lady for whom she worked said, "Ann, I hear you're getting married."
She said, "No, I'm not getting married, but thank God for the rumor."
As I listened to Miss. Williams, I said to myself, "All of these wonderful things that she said about me can't be true, but thank God for the rumor."
Now, I’m sure each of you is aware of the problems that we confront in our nation, the problems that we confront in the world, the problem that we as a people confront in all of our communities all over the United States of America.
It was Victor Hugo who said on one occasion that there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come. And I want to assure you today that the idea whose time has come in our day and our generation is the idea of freedom and human dignity. Wherever people are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; or whether they are in Jackson, Mississippi; Atlanta, Georgia; New York City or Cleveland, Ohio, the cry is always the same: We want to be free.
And I would like to suggest some of the thing things that you must do and some of the things that all of us must do in order to be truly free. Now the first thing that we must do is to develop within ourselves a deep sense of somebodiness. Don’t let anybody make you feel that you are nobody. Because the minute one feels that way, he is incapable of rising to his full maturity as a person. You know a lot of people have segregated minds and one of the first things that the Negro must do is to desegregate his mind.
I remember when I was growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, I had to go to high school on the other side of town. At that time it was the only high school for Negroes in the whole city of Atlanta, the Booker T. Washington High School. When I was a student there we had 7,000 students in that one school. I guess that’s the reason I can’t read too well now, because the teacher had to spend all the time getting the class in order and disciplining the class because it was so overcrowded, but anyway we had to pass by all of these schools, white schools, to get to the Booker Washington High School. And I had to ride the bus from home every morning to the other side of town. And fortunately I had parents who taught me from the very beginning that I was somebody, and that I should never feel inferior. They taught all of us that, that we should feel that we are as good as any other children. And I remember day after day getting on that bus -- it was a segregated bus. Negroes had to sit in the back. And often we had to stand over empty seats because the seats up at the front were reserved for whites only.
And I started getting on that bus going across town and every time I got on the bus, even though I found myself having to take my body back to the back of the bus, I always left my mind on the front seat. And I said to myself one of these days, I’m going to put my body up there where my mind is.
Now this is all I’m saying this morning that we must feel that we count. That we belong. That we are persons. That we are children of the living God. And it means that we go down in our soul and find that somebodiness and we must never again be ashamed of ourselves. We must never be ashamed of our heritage. We must not be ashamed of the color of our skin. Black is as beautiful as any color and we must believe it.
And so every black person in this country must rise up and say I’m somebody; I have a rich proud and noble history, however painful and exploited it has been. I am black, but I am black and beautiful.
And so we must be able to cry out with the eloquent poet: “Fleecy locks and black complexion cannot forfeit nature’s claim, Skin may differ but affection dwells in black and white the same. If I were so tall as to reach the pole or to grasp the ocean at a span, I must be measured by my soul, the mind is the standard of the man.” And we must believe this firmly and live by it.
Now the second thing I want to suggest is this:
That we must make full and constructive use of the freedom we already possess. We must not wait for the day of full emancipation before we set out to achieve certain basic developments in our lives. Now I know the problems here. And I’m not unmindful of the fact that through segregation and discrimination many of us have been scarred.
Many have lost motivation. But I think it is safe to say that there is a host of young people in the Negro community who can brilliantly apply themselves and thereby make full and constructive use of the freedom we already possess. This means we must set out to achieve excellence in our various fields of endeavor. This means that we’ve got to study hard, we’ve got to stay in school. Again, I know the social problems that cause many Negroes to drop out of school but I urge you today to develop that rugged determination: Stay in school, stick with to the end. It may be that you will have to work harder than other people but don’t mind that. Go on and do it anyhow.
It was Longfellow who said, “The heights of great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they while their companions slept were toiling upward in the night.” And I urge you today to realize that doors of opportunities are opening now that were not open to our mothers and our fathers. And the great challenge facing each of you today is to be ready to enter these doors as they open.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said on one occasion that if a man can write a better book, or preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, even if he builds his house in the woods the world will make a beaten path to his door.
That hasn’t always been true but it will be increasingly true.
So, set out to do a good job and do that job so well that the living, the dead, or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. And let me say that we’ve got to prepare now to compete with people. Many of our parents have been so scarred by years of denial and neglect that they cannot face the same challenges that we face. But I say to you that you have the opportunity to assert certain things and get ready to compete with people. Don’t set out merely to do a good Negro job. If you’re setting out one day to be a good Negro doctor or a good Negro lawyer or a good Negro schoolteacher or a good Negro preacher or a good Negro skilled laborer or a good Negro barber or beautician, 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 nobody can do it any better.
If it falls your lot to be a streetsweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures.
Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry.
Sweep streets 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 streetsweeper who swept his job well.
This is what Douglas Malloch meant when he said, "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 rill. 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 you fail. Be the best of whatever you are!"
Now the final thing I want to say is this: That if we are going to achieve freedom we’ve got to engage in action programs to make that freedom possible. Let nobody fool you about this. Freedom is never voluntarily given to the oppressed by the oppressor. It must be demanded. And I say to you this morning that this will be necessary all over the United States of America. But as I say this let me give a warning signal that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship but we must never use second-class methods to gain it. We’ve got to get smart. We’ve got to organize. We’ve got to organize so effectively and so well and engage in such powerful, creative protest that there will not be a power in the world that can stop us and that can afford to ignore us.
Our power does not lie in Molotov cocktails. Our power does not lie in bricks and stones. Our power does not lie in bottles.
Our power lies in our ability to unite around concrete programs. Our power lies in our ability to say nonviolently that we aren’t gonna take it any longer. You see the chief problem with a riot is that it can always be halted by a superior force. But I know another weapon that the National Guard can’t stop.
They tried to stop it in Mississippi, they tried to stop it in Alabama but we had a power that Bull Connor’s fire hoses couldn’t put out. It was a fire within. And I say that we can have that same kind of fire all over the United States of America. And we can transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows through this method. And so I come to you today and urge you to work in the civil rights movement, to join the civil rights organizations, to give of your time and your activity, when you have spare time, in community action.
One of the things that we need in every city is political power. Enough of our parents don’t register and vote. Each of you should serve as a committee of one to work with your parents if they have not registered to vote and other people in the community.
Cleveland, Ohio, is a city that can be the first city of major size in the United States to have a black mayor and you should participate in making that a possibility. This is an opportunity for you.
And so there are things that all of us can do and I urge you to do it with zeal and with vigor. And let me say to you, my friends, that in spite of the difficult days ahead, the so-called white backlash — which is nothing but a new name for an old phenomenon — I’m still convinced that we’re going to achieve freedom right here in America. And I believe this because however much America has strayed away from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned as we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.
Before the Pilgrim fathers landed at Plymouth, we were here.
Before Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here.
Before the beautiful words of the Star-Spangled Banner were written, we were here.
And for more than two centuries, our forebears labored here without wages. They made cotton king, and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of the most humiliating and oppressive conditions.
And yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to grow and develop, and I say to you this morning that if the inexpressible cruelties of slavery couldn’t stop us, the opposition that we now face will surely fail.
We are going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the Almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands.
And so I say, let us keep moving, let us move on toward the goal of brotherhood, toward the goal of personal fulfillment, toward the goal of a society undergirded by justice.
And I close by quoting a beautiful little poem from the pen of Langston Hughes, where he has a mother, talking to a son. With ungrammatical profundity that mother says, "Well, son, I'll tell you: Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. It's had tacks in it, boards torn up, places with no carpet on the floor -- bare. But all the time I'se been a-climbin' on, and reachin' landin's, and turnin' corners, and sometimes goin' in the dark where there ain't been no light. So boy, don't you stop now. Don't you set down on the steps 'cause you finds it's kinder hard. For I'se still goin', boy, I'se still climbin', and life for me ain't been no crystal stair."
Well, life for none of us has been a crystal stair, but we must keep moving. We must keep going. And so, if you can't fly, run. If you can't run, walk. If you can't walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving.