Every January, the world comes together to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But for a man who ultimately lost his life fighting for justice, peace and equality, one day simply isn’t enough. His sermons, speeches, books, and letters hold the answer to a fundamental problem we continue to confront today: Replace inaction with action, injustice with justice, and hatred with love.
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was inspired by other activists who wrote about and practiced nonviolent resistance. By responding to violent suppression with civil disobedience, his message was able to carry much farther than the streets he walked.
“It is no longer the choice between violence and nonviolence; it is now either nonviolence or nonexistence” - “The American Dream” speech at Lincoln University, 1961
“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” - Nobel Lecture, 1964
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” - Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963
“He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” - Stride Toward Freedom
“When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.” - Why We Can’t Wait, 1964
The mid-twentieth century was an important precipice in American history regarding civil rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. made it his life’s calling to lead the Black community out of the adversity they had endured and into a future of true freedom.
“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 Have a Dream” speech, 1963
“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." - “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” sermon, 1968
“Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” - “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, 1968
“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.” - Strength to Love
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” - “A Proper Sense of Priorities” speech, 1968
King often spoke on the issue of character in America. Specifically, he believed that one must live their life with a moral standing and a foundation of spirituality.
“The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided man.” - Strength to Love
“The time is always right to do what’s right.” - Oberlin College speech, 1964
“I feel that segregation is totally unchristian, and that it is against everything the Christian religion stands for.” - The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” - “Speech at the Great March on Detroit,” 1963
“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in." - Youth March for Integrated Schools, 1959
The issues surrounding civil rights sound more complicated than they really are. To King, it all began and ended with love and hate.
"Let no man pull you so low as to hate him." - “The Most Durable Power” speech, 1956
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” - Strength to Love
“Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.” - Strength to Love
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred [nor] allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence.” - “I Have a Dream” speech, 1963
“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.” - Stride Toward Freedom
King strongly believed that where one’s heart went, their actions should follow. Whether that progress was small at first didn’t matter; any action was better than inaction.
“If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl; but by all means keep moving.” - “Keep Moving from this Mountain” speech, 1960
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can't ride you unless your back is bent.” - “I See the Promised Land” speech, 1968
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.” - Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 1964
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” - Stride Toward Freedom
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” - Speech at St. Louis, 1964
Celebrate the transformative life of Martin Luther King, Jr. with additional resources:
20 Key Facts About Martin Luther King Jr.