Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Martin Luther King, Jr. on courage, equality, and justice

Each January, Americans commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., reflecting on the enduring legacy of the legendary civil rights activist. From his iconic speech at the 1963 March on Washington, to his final oration in Memphis, Tennessee, King is remembered not only as a masterful rhetorician, but a luminary for his generation and many generations to come. These quotes, compiled from the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, demonstrate the reverberating impact of his work, particularly in a time of great social, political, and economic upheaval.

On courage:

“A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard.”

Where Do We Go From Here? (1967) ch. 4

“If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”

Speech in Detroit, 23 June 1963, in James Bishop The Days of Martin Luther King (1971) ch. 4

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But Conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’”

Speech, 1967; in Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. (1999) ch. 30

On equality:

“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 my four little 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.”

Speech at Civil Rights March in Washington, 28 August 1963, in New York Times 29 August 1963; see also jackson 413:13

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Strength to Love (1963) ch. 5, pt. 2

On justice:

“Judicial decrees may not change the heart; but they can restrain the heartless.”

Speech in Nashville, Tennessee, 27 December 1962, in James Melvin Washington (ed.) A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1986) ch. 22

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Letter from Birmingham Jail, Alabama, 16 April 1963, in Atlantic Monthly August 1963

“We shall overcome because the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Sermon at the National Cathedral, Washington, 31 March 1968, in James Melvin Washington A Testament of Hope (1991); see obama 571:3, parker 585:12

On inaction:

“The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Letter from Birmingham Jail, Alabama, 16 April 1963, in Atlantic Monthly August 1963

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

Letter from Birmingham Jail, Alabama, 16 April 1963

Image Credit: Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by U.S. Embassy New Delhi. CC by ND 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Julia Craig

    Check out another blogger’s tribute to MLK and the fight that we are still fighting http://www.invertedalchemy.com/

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *