Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021 with his most inspirational quotes on love, equality and leadership
Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021 is being celebrated across America today (January 18).
Dr King was the leader of the US Civil Right's movement, and is perhaps the most prominent figure to push for the American government to end legalised racial segregation.
What is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a national holiday in America that honours the achievements of the Baptist minister and civil rights leader.
Dr King was known for his denouncement of violence to combat racial inequality. Instead, he championed civil disobedience as a tactic to push his movement's agenda.
Born in 1929, Dr King led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white person.
In 1963, he helped organise the March on Washington, and it was here that he delivered his iconic I Have a Dream speech, which featured the lines: "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."
Then, in 1964, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work within the civil rights movement.
Inspirational Martin Luther King Jr. quotes
To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. day and to honour his legacy, here are 22 of his best-known quotes.
Each one is worth reading and contemplating as we reflect on the key takeaways of Dr King's message – one that championed non-violent resistance, equality and faith above all.
1. "We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope."
Dr King delivered this quote during a speech on February 6th, 1968 - nearly two months before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. Within the context of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr King was alluding to the fact that temporary disappointments should not put people off when fighting for racial equality.
The existence of this quote also points to the fact that Dr King would have been disappointed with the aftermath of his assassination, which incited riots in cities all over the nation.
2. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
This line was spoken by the civil rights leader in a sermon called Loving your Enemies. It was delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1957 - on Christmas Day.
3. "I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear."
Here, Dr King touches on the fact that there is a personal cost to hate, and that it can also affect other people around you.
Love, on the other, hand uplifts, and only benefits a community. King was a keen proponent of showering people with love, especially those who "hated" him.
4. "Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude."
Dr King stresses the importance of consciously choosing to change your feelings and attitudes towards the people who have caused you harm and upset, whether they deserve it or not. This does not mean that you let people walk over you, but rather that you do not cause yourself further suffering by dwelling in negativity.
5. "Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase."
Dr King advises us to take the first step towards our goal, even if we cannot see the full path towards it. Being in "faith" means having confidence in your abilities, and trust that the outcome will be good.
6. "Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'"
Dr King spoke this line to an audience in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1957. Arguably, much of his own legacy revolves around the things he did for the betterment of black people in America, and the civil rights movement.
7. "Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness."
Here, Dr King acknowledges that "bitterness" and negative thinking are easy things to fall into. However, they never provide a benefit, to us, or others. Instead, the civil rights leader encourages us to harness our feelings in a positive manner.
8. "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
This quote was spoken during Dr King's speech in Selma, Alabama on the 8th March 1965. The full quote is as follows: "A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true."
9. "We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now."
In this line, Dr King refers to the legacy of slavery within America. While people came to the country in many different ways, we all must find a way to coexist.
10. "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."
This quote is found in Dr King's book, Strength to Love. It was published in 1963, and is a collection of his sermons on the topic of racial segregation in the United States, and his religious values.
11. "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle."
Dr King delivered this line during a speech at Stanford University, titled The Other America. During it, he addressed the issues of race, poverty and economic justice. He gave slightly different variations of the same speech in ensuing years.
12. "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend."
Dr King believed love to be the strongest force in the world. Here, he again encourages us to swap hate for love, and use strong emotion for good.
13. "There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right."
For context, the quote begins with the lines: "On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? ... But conscience asks the question, is it right?"
14. "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."
This statement is taken from the Bible - Isaiah 40:31. Dr King wanted Americans to understand that you can make a difference, but do it in a peaceful, non-violent manner.
15. "Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are."
Six months before his assassination, Dr King spoke to a group of students at Barratt Junior High school in Philadelphia on October 26th 1967. The speech was titled, What is Your Life's Blueprint?
16. "We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop… I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land."
Less than 24 hours after Dr King delivered these prophetic words, he was killed by James Earl Ray. The line was spoken to a crowd in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3rd, 1968, where the city's sanitation workers were striking.
17. “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.”
This also comes from Dr King's final speech, I've Been to the Mountaintop.
18. "When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
This quote comes from Dr King's iconic I Have a Dream speech, which he delivered on August 28th 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
19. "True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice."
Dr King spoke this line during a sermon from Dexter's pulpit the day before his trial for violating Alabama's anti-boycott law. The sermon is titled: When Peace Becomes Obnoxious.
20. "There is nothing more tragic than to find an individual bogged down in the length of life, devoid of breadth."
Dr King delivered the sermon, The Dimensions of a Complete Life, at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Mongomery, Alabama as the congregation considered him as a candidate for their new pastor.
21. "Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
This line comes from one of Dr King's most famous pieces - Letter from Birmingham Jail. It was an open letter written on April 17th, 1963, and quickly became a touchstone text for the American Civil Rights Movement.
22. "A riot if the language of the unheard."
This quote comes from Dr King's The Other America speech, and it was widely shared following the death of George Floyd on May 25th 2020, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
How did Martin Luther King Jr. die?
Dr King was fatally shot on April 4th, 1968, while he was standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee.
He was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers' strike when he was struck in the jaw. The bullet severed his spinal cord, and he was pronounced dead upon arrival at a Memphis hospital. King was 39-years-old.
James Earl Ray, who at the time was a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary, was arrested on June 8th, 1968, and charged with the crime. The following year, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in the Tennessee State Penitentiary.
He later attempted to revoke his guilty plea, but was unsuccessful. Ray died in prison in 1998.