Monday, Jan. 17 marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday honoring MLK’s birthday. Since 1983 when President Ronald Regan signed it into law, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been a time to reflect and remember this legendary orator, preacher, and social justice warrior’s efforts to fight for equal rights, a battle that inevitably took his life. And there’s no better way to do that than to think about and consider some of his words, like these 40 powerful and inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. quotes.
As an American Baptist minister, King committed 13 years of his life (1955-68, when he was murdered) to the causes of racial integration, civil rights, and nonviolent resistance. His famous “I have a dream” speech was heard by some 250,000 people in 1963 who marched on Washington, D.C. But beyond that speech, King wrote hundreds of letters and sermons, and left a deep archive of written work. As you might imagine, there are powerful messages to be found in his canon, like “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where King defended his methods to a group of clergy peers who wanted him to end his protests. They’re worth your time too.
On Racial Equality
The American Civil War may have ended slavery, but it didn't end racism. By the 1950s Jim Crow Laws — laws that legalized racial segregation — were still alive and well. Just consider that 1952 was the first year the Tuskegee Institute reported no lynchings, according to Ferris State University. This is the era King comes to the podium denouncing segregation in no uncertain terms.
- “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
- “I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know we will win, but I have come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house."
- “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance."
- “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.”
- "Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”
On Continuing the Fight
Being a part of the civil rights movement often meant risking one's life. One need only look to the life and work of the late John Lewis, an activist and statesman who represented Georgia's 5th Congressional District from 1987 until his death in 2020. Lewis was arrested and jailed dozens of times in his fight for desegregation. Up against such enormous challenges, King knew he needed to cheer on his followers, like Lewis. These are some of the words he used to do so.
- “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
- "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
- “For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”
- "Life's most persistent and urgent question, 'What are you doing for others?'"
- "The moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice."
- “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
- “With patient and firm determination we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope, until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the levelling process of humility and compassion; until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity; and until the crooked places of prejudice are transformed by the straightening process of bright-eyed wisdom.”
- “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward."
- “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
- “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
On Nonviolent Protest
MLK was adamant that civil rights groups use nonviolent methods. Here's how he defended that stance:
- “In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace.”
- “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.”
- “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
- “We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself. We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts.”
- “We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.”
- “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.”
- “The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.”
Bringing truth to power was at the heart of King's crusade and it was an idea founded in his Christian faith. These themes come up again and again in his work.
- "I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant."
- “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
- “Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything black ugly and evil." Look in your dictionary and see the synonyms for the word black. It’s always something degrading, low, and sinister. Look at the word white, it’s always something pure, high. Well, I wanna get the language right tonight. I wanna get the language so right that everybody here will cry out, ‘Yes! I’m Black! I’m proud of it! I’m Black and beautiful!”
- “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
- “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
On the Power of Love
Drill down King's writings and you'll come to one foundational idea, that the only way to manifest equality is through love and compassion.
- “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
- “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
- “It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.”
- "Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude.”
- “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
- “Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation.”
- “Love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals.”
What is our moral obligation to our fellow man? For King, it meant serving them even in the face of danger.
- “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”
- “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”
- “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
As a preacher, redemption was naturally a big component of King's work and he saw "unearned suffering" — like the many situations he found himself in, from bomb threats to stabbing attempts — as redemptive.
- “If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.”
- “Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, 'Love your enemies.' It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long.”
- “But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men."
As we look back at the important life and work of Martin Luther King Jr., the words of the man himself present a powerful guide to the activism still needed in this country and the future of equality, inclusivity, and love.
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