What the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Teaches Us About Living with Purpose

“However young you are, you have a responsibility to seek to make life better for everybody.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Aug 26, 1967


On Monday, we honored the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King is remembered today for his commitment to living with purpose and serving his community, to guaranteeing freedom and justice for all of us. His legacy challenges us to live our own purpose with perseverance, courage, and commitment.

While he may be most widely known and admired for his iconic and transformative 1963 speech, “I Have a Dream”, which he delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, ShinePR wishes to highlight a 1967 speech he gave – six months before his assassination – to a much smaller audience: junior high students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia. For in this speech, Dr. King asks “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint” for living a purposeful life, and he offers wisdom and direction that are inspirational for any age, especially as this country continues to fight for racial equality and social justice during uncertain times.

Dr. King opens his address to the junior high school students with: “I want to ask you a question, and that is, what is in your life’s blueprint?”

He goes on to explain that the students are in an important and crucial period, one in which they will be deciding in which direction their lives will go. He asks them to reflect on what they will become, how they will serve, and how they will live a purposeful life. What can guide them toward a life of meaning and purpose is a blueprint.

Dr. King continues, “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.”

Let’s look at the three tenets Dr. King outlined in his speech – tenets that are still relevant and powerful today – regardless of our age – and that should be in our life’s blueprint:

1. A deep belief in our own self-worth

In his speech, Dr. King says, “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’re nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”

With these words, Dr. King reinforces that all lives have value. We should be proud of ourselves, our physical features, of the color of our skin. He encourages the audience to say – and believe in their hearts– that “I am Black and beautiful.”

When we believe in ourselves and are proud of who we are, we are more courageous and empowered to take action on the struggles for justice, freedom, and equality today.

2. A determination to achieve excellence

Building on the tenet of believing in our self-worth, Dr. King challenges the students to “have the determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor.” And as the young people decide what their life’s work will be, Dr. King states, “Set out to do it and to do it well…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.”

He goes on to encourage the students to stay in school, despite the pressures in society, and to stay focused and study hard: “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.”

What follows is perhaps one of the most moving passages in his speech – a rallying cry for us all to live by: “If you can’t be a pine on the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub 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. If you can’t be the sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”

Dr. King recognizes this will not be easy, but through hard work there will be progress, that others before us “have walked through long and desolate nights of oppression, and yet they have risen up and plunged against cloud-filled nights of affliction, <as> new and blazing stars of inspiration.”

3. A commitment to a purposeful life

As “stars of inspiration”, Dr. King says our life’s blueprint must include “a commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love, and justice.” And as a reminder of the first tenet about believing in our self-worth, he says, “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.”

That commitment includes an important North Star that illuminates our purpose in life: “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… And with a powerful commitment, 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 the realization of the dream of brotherhood and toward the realization of the dream of understanding and goodwill. Let nobody stop us.”

He closes by acknowledging that our life’s blueprint will be paved with challenges, and he encourages his audience, including those who are hearing these words for the first time today, to use their belief in their self-worth and their drive for excellence to keep moving forward toward their life’s purpose: “We must keep going. If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl, but by all means, keep moving.”

We lost Dr. King prematurely – his work was not yet finished. Neither is ours. As an individual or an organization, we each have a story to tell, a role to play in finding our greater good and using it to shape and improve tomorrow. With a thoughtful blueprint to our purpose, we can keep progressing, collaborating, and fighting for sustainable change. Take time to reflect this week to think about what is in your blueprint. Reflect on your skills and talents and how you can use them to leave the world a better place. And always remember to move forward with a strong belief in yourself and a commitment to excellence.

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Laura Wessells

Laura Wessells has been a Brand, Marketing and PR leader for more than 25 years. She co-founded ShinePR in 2020 to continue her passion of helping cause-driven brands tell their story.