Among the speeches and quotes by Martin Luther King, we all know his famous “I have a dream” speech which he made in 1963. It is symbolic of his fight for civil rights for black people. But what do you really know about this man and his path in life, his ideas? In this article, dive into the America of the 1950s and 60s and discover the story of a militant non-violent pastor and his fight for peace and equal rights. Then browse through our selection of the best Martin Luther King quotes on a multitude of themes such as non-violence, civil disobedience, racism, freedom, dignity, slavery, justice and injustice, hope, love, hate, death, values, religion, faith…
Who is Martin Luther King?
A childhood spent in segregationist America
Martin Luther King Junior was born on 15 January 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. His father, Martin Luther King Senior, was a pastor (like his own father before him). His mother, Alberta Williams King, was the organist in the same church. He had an older sister, Christine King Farris, and a younger brother, Albert Daniel Williams King. His childhood home is now a national museum.
Martin Luther King grew up in segregationist America. The young boy became truly aware of the context of segregation when, at the age of six, some children told him that they could not play with them anymore because he was black and they were white. As a young man, he studied theology and became a Baptist minister in 1947. He received a doctorate in theology in 1955 from the University of Boston, two years after his marriage to Coretta Scott. They had four children together: Yolanda, born in 1955, Martin Luther King III, born in 1957, Dexter Scott, born in 1961 and Bernice, born in 1963.
Martin Luther King’s political engagement
Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on the bus: the event that triggered Martin Luther King’s struggle
In 1954, Martin Luther King arrived in Montgomery, Alabama. This State, like a large portion of the south of the United States, was going through a period of violence against black Americans. This culminated in 1955 with the racist murder of a 14-year old teenager. On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person.
The segregationist laws in the city required her to do so. She was arrested. After this event, which went down in history, Martin Luther King, with the help of another pastor, Ralph Abernathy and the local director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, organised a boycott of the buses in Montgomery. The boycott would last more than one year. In 1956, the Supreme Court of the United States finally declared that segregation on the public bus system, in restaurants, schools and other public places was illegal.
A believer in non-violence
In 1957, strengthened by this victory, Martin Luther King created the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). He went on to become the president. A believer in the path of nonviolence, Pastor King adhered to the philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience as described by Henry David Thoreau and successfully used by Gandhi in India. In all of his speeches and demonstrations, he insisted on the pacifist nature of his militant struggle.
In 1963, Martin Luther King took part in the great march on Washington for employment and freedom. After the march, he made a speech that went down in history under the name “I have a dream”. He made the speech before more than 250,000 people. In this renowned speech, he explained his dream of a world in which black and white people were equals.
In 1968, during a visit to Memphis to support a strike by sanitary public workers, he was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of his hotel. He was 39 years old. A man was judged and sentenced for his murder. However, it appears, just like the assassination of President Kennedy, that the situation may be more complicated than it first appears.
Nobel Peace Prize
and many other awards
Martin Luther King’s engagement earned him a number of awards, some of them posthumous:
- In 1964, he received the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person ever to receive it.
- In 1965, he received the American liberties medallion from the American Jewish Committee and the Pacem in Terris prize based on the encyclical of the same name by Pope John XXIII.
- The American Family Planning Federation awarded him the Margaret Sanger prize in 1966.
- He received twenty doctorat honoris causa from American and foreign universities.
- The American president Jimmy Carter decorated him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously, in 1977.
Finally, in 1983, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States, created a national holiday – Martin Luther King Day. This date honours the Reverend’s birthday. It takes place every year on the third Monday in January. Little observed before the turn of the century, today fifty American states celebrated this holiday.
Quotes by Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King quotes about civil disobedience
- “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
- “Non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”
- “During my student days at Morehouse I read Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience for the first time. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. This was my first intellectual contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance.”
Martin Luther King quotes about non-violence
- “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”
- “Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a world since Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.”
- “Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”
- “Non-violence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time.”
- Men for years now have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.”
- “In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?”
- “Civilisation and violence are antithetical.”
- “Violence is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding.” “Not only is violence ineffective, its use runs counter to the goals of any progressive movement.”
Martin Luther King quotes about racism
- “What matters to a man is not the colour of his skin or the texture of his hair, but the texture and quality of his soul.”
- “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”.
- “Something should remind us before we can finish eating breakfast in the morning we are dependent on more than half of the world. We get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for a sponge, and that’s handed to us by a Pacific Islander. Then we reach over for a bar of soap, and that’s given to us at the hands of a Frenchman. And then we reach up for our towel, and that’s given to us by a Turk. And then we go to the kitchen for breakfast, getting ready to go to work. Maybe this morning we want to follow the good old American tradition, and we drink coffee. That’s poured in our cups by a South American. Or maybe we are desirous of having tea. Then we discover that that’s poured in our cup by a Chinese. Or maybe we want cocoa this morning, and then we discover that that’s poured in our cup by a West African. Then we reach over for a piece of toast, only to discover that that’s given to us at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And so before we finish eating breakfast in the morning we are dependent on more than half of the world.”
- “The good man does not look at physical particularities but knows how to discern those deep qualities that make people human, and therefore brothers.
- “I want to be the white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law.”
- “Since the abolition of slavery, black Americans have been exploited again. Today, a possibility of a non-violent revolution has emerged. Our struggle will continue and we will one day triumph.”
Martin Luther King quotes about freedom, dignity and slavery
- “Freedom is one thing. It is indivisible. You have it all or you are not free.”
- “As long as the mind is enslaved the body can never be free Psychological freedom and a firm sense of self-esteem is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery.
- The negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive manhood his own emancipation proclamation. And with a spirit straining toward true self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and to the world: I am somebody. I have a rich and noble history, I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honour. And, I have a rich and noble history.”
- “It is better to suffer in dignity than to accept segregation in humiliation.”
- “A man cannot climb on your back and let you carry him unless your back is bent.”
Martin Luther King quotes about hope
- “I cannot lose hope, because when you lose hope, you die.”
- “If I can ease one pain, then my life will not have been in vain.”
- “Live the dreams that life would defy you to dream.”
- “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
- “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
- “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”
- “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
Martin Luther King quotes about injustice
- “Any form of injustice is a threat to justice everywhere.”
- “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
- “I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state sweltering in the heat of injustice and oppression, will one day be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
- “Cowardice asks the question – is it safe? Vanity asks the question – is it popular? Expediency asks the question – is it political? But conscience asks the question – is it right? There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, popular, or political; but because it is right.” “I believe today that there is a need for all people of good will to come together with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘We ain’t goin’ study war no more.’ This is the challenge facing modern man.”
- “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.”
Martin Luther King quotes about love and hate
- “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.”
- “Hatred paralyses life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”
- “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
- “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
- “Leave hatred to those who are too weak to love.”
- “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.”
- “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
- “The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.” “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.”
- “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
- “Hate leads to hate; violence leads to violence.”
Martin Luther King quotes about values
- “We must live as brothers or we will die together like idiots.”
- “He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
- “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
- “A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.”
- “What scares me is not the violence of the bad guys; it is the indifference of the good.”
- “The good man does not look at physical particularities but knows how to discern those deep qualities that make people human, and therefore brothers.”
- “Everyone can be important because everyone can be useful for something.”
- “The great tragedy of life is that so often we allow the without of our lives to absorb the within of our lives. […] What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world of means – airplanes, televisions, electric lights — and lose the end: the soul?”
- “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Martin Luther King quotes about God, religion and faith
- “So God has two outstretched arms – one that is strong enough to surround us with justice and one that is gentle enough to surround us with grace.”
- “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.”
- “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step”.
- “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
- “Isn’t God an extremist of love?
- Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary.”
- “Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right.”
Martin Luther King quotes about death
- “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
- “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.”
- “A nation that produces stupid men every day buys its own spiritual death on credit.”
- “If we assume that mankind has a right to survive then we must find an alternative to war and destruction.”
Now you are an expert on Martin Luther King! Did you know all these quotes? Which is your favourite?