The best little sweeper

Photo By Larry Dalton

In 1959, I lived in the fraternity house of Kappa Alpha Psi, a black fraternity, at the University of Illinois. An alumnus gave a talk, the gist of which was “be the best at whatever you do.” He was a fencer. Fencing was supposed to be a sport for the privileged. It was not for colored people. In 1959, the Brown v. Board of Education decision was only five years old. The Montgomery bus boycott had occurred only four years earlier. Many of the graduate students in our house were from the South because laws prohibited them from attending graduate or professional schools in their native states. Jesse Jackson quarterbacked our freshman football team because the University of South Carolina did not accept black students.

Despite all this, the Kappa Alpha Psi alumnus had entered pristine intercollegiate fencing, won a varsity spot and become the best fencer on the team. In fact, he became the best fencer in the Big Ten and in the country. He led his team to the national championship.

The fencer told us, “Whatever you do, be the best. If you’re going to be a janitor, be the best, so when people come into a room you’ve cleaned, they’ll know you were there. If you’re a dishwasher, wash those dishes so clean that whoever stacks them will know you washed them.”

A few years later, I heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. give a speech. And he said virtually the same thing as the fencer. He said, “Whatever you do, always be the best. If you’re going to be a street sweeper, be the best little street sweeper that ever did sweep.”

I took that message to heart, but I modified it. I was a fencer who never became an All-American. I had a lot of janitor jobs, but a number of people I worked with were better janitors than I was. So I modified the teaching to a slogan that was a better fit for me: “Always do your best.”

I lived by it then, and I still do.

It is a very specific rule. It is not “Always try to do your best.” It is “Always do your best.” If you have a broken leg, your best at some physical task will not be the same as when your leg is not broken, but do the absolute best you can with that broken leg. If you’re sick, your best may not be the same as when you’re well. Do the best you can with that illness. Your best is the best you can do at any specific time.

We are often afraid to do our best. If we do our best, we reveal our limits. Our best shows us not only what we can do, but also what we cannot. If we stop short of total application, we can maintain the belief that there’s still something else we could have accomplished. That’s a delusion, and it shrinks our possibilities. When you drive yourself to the very end of your abilities, more often than not, your own accomplishment will astound you. Each time, your best gets better.

There are limits. At age 50, you’re not going to run as fast as you did at 25. But if you always stretch yourself, you will know you have not failed yourself or anyone else. By every human standard, you have realized your own promise and your responsibility to the human community. Within your range of possibility, you’ve been “the best little sweeper that ever did sweep.”

David Covin is emeritus professor of government and pan-African studies at California State University, Sacramento. He is the immediate past president of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.