WATCH: MLK Speaks at Philadelphia Middle School in 1967
On October 26th, 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Philadelphia for a “Stars for Freedom” show at The Spectrum featuring Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin, Sidney Poitier and Nipsey Russell.
But before that, he visited Barratt Junior High School in South Philadelphia and gave a rousing 20-minute talk that’s a version of his famous “Street Sweeper Speech.”
“If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Beethoven composed music,” King says in the speech. “Sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. 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.’ ”
Ten years ago, the Inquirer talked to students and teachers who were in attendance. Evelyn White, a Barratt counselor who had ties to King’s organization, was able to get MLK to visit the school for the talk.
“Therefore, you need not be lulled into purchasing cosmetics advertised to make you light up,” King said in the speech. “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.”
Earl Wilbourn, a student at the time, told the Inquirer he took the speech to heart: “I never processed my hair, never. After the speech, I realized that’s not the thing to do. The message goes far beyond straight or curly or kinky hair. It transcends everything. It’s about self-esteem, confidence … about maximizing your abilities.”
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Saint Joseph’s after his talk at Barratt before giving opening remarks at the show at The Spectrum.
Barratt Junior High School, later renamed Barratt Middle School, no longer exists. The school, at 16th and Wharton streets, closed after the 2011 school year due to declining enrollment. Norris S. Barratt, the school’s namesake, was a Philadelphia lawyer and Common Pleas judge who also authored Barratt’s Chapel and Methodism.
“As we struggle with these problems, we’ve got to struggle with them with a method that can be militant, but at the same time does not destroy life or property,” King told the Barratt students. “Our slogan must not be ‘burn, baby, burn.’ It must be ‘build, baby, build.’ ‘Organize, baby, organize.’ Our slogan must be ‘learn, baby, learn,’ so we can ‘earn, baby, earn.'”
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