3 Lessons for Today from Dr. King’s 1963 Keuka College Address

As the nation commemorates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Civil Rights leader's words continue to offer guidance for our times.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Keuka College was founded on a vision of social justice. Founder George Harvey Ball sought to educate young people “to bring strength to our nation and to help humanity.”

So it was in keeping with the College’s mission that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters Degree and invited to deliver the College’s Baccalaureate Address on June 16, 1963.

Dr. King’s message of social justice and equal rights spoke to the concerns of his time – and continues to speak to the concerns of ours. Keuka College endorsed his vision of inclusiveness and equal opportunity during the Civil Rights era and continues to endorse it today.

Here are three lessons from Dr. King’s 1963 speech that continue to provide solace and direction more than 55 years later:

Americans Have a Shared Destiny

Dr. King spoke at length about the interconnectedness of Americans, despite the fact that then, as now, Americans continue to experience their nation differently based on the color of their skin. He highlighted the need for people to look beyond their own struggles – or, indeed, comforts – to consider the plight of others. In fact, he argued, such consideration is vital not only to national harmony but personal contentment. 

“An individual has not begun to live until he or she can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity,” Dr. King said, later adding, “life is interrelated and we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. And whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”     

All Work Has Purpose

Dr. King argued that there is substance and value in all labors, great and small. “If it is for the uplifting of humanity, it has cosmic significance,” he said, capturing the spirit of a student body that has long donated hundreds of hours a year to community service. He urged graduates to always take pride in their efforts and to strive for excellence.

“We have the responsibility of setting out to do our life’s work so well that nobody could do it better,” he said. “If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper in life, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry, and like Beethoven composed music. 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.”

Strive to Overcome Adversity

During a moment in which present-day public-health challenges, political strife, and racial reckonings can seem intractable and unprecedented, the strength and perseverance embodied by Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement are instructive and inspiring:

“In our struggle in the South, we have a little song that we sing, which has become the theme song of our movement. Maybe you’ve heard it here and there. At times, we’ve joined together to sing it behind jail bars. At times, we’ve joined our hands to sing it when howling and vicious mobs were on the outside. At times, we’ve joined our hands to sing it in the midst of vicious and howling dogs. We’ve joined our hands to sing it even amidst the hooded perpetrators of violence bombing our homes and our churches. It goes like this – ‘We shall overcome. We shall overcome, deep in my heart, I do believe. We shall overcome.’”