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50 Powerful Martin Luther King, Jr., Quotes That Stand the Test of Time

These timeless words will restore your faith in humanity on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and every day.

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Honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every January, we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and the inspiring legacy he left behind over 50 years after his assassination in 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. spent his years as an activist and a leader of the civil rights movement. He was known for his speeches, sermons, and writings that aimed to motivate society to push for change. His most notable speech was “I Have a Dream,” presented in 1963—which you may recall reading history class. Dr. King was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in 1964. These Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes about courage, unity, love, and racial equality are only a small piece of what he left behind. We continue to look to Dr. King for wisdom even today as we continue the fight for equality. For more insights about Dr. King in addition to these quotes, check out these photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Martin Luther King, Jr. facts.
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1. “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.” (Speech at Cornell College, 1962.) Here are more powerful quotes that speak volumes in the fight against racism.

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2. “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” (Stride Toward Freedom, 1957.) Anyone can battle against injustice with these small ways to fight racism every day.

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3. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.” (Strength to Love, 1963.)

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4. “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” (Speech at Park-Sheraton Hotel, 1962.) Learn why Black History Month shouldn’t be just a single month.

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5. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 1963.)

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6. “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” (The Drum Major Instinct, 1968.) For evidence of this, check out these true stories of ordinary people who changed history.

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7. “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.” (Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence Digital History, 1967.)

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8. “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” (Speech in St. Louis, 1964.)

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9. “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. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” (A Gift of Love, published in 2012.) Here are some more inspiring forgiveness quotes that encourage you to finally let go.

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10. “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.” (“A Proper Sense of Priorities,” 1968.) Now, learn how the clenched fist became a Black power symbol.

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11. “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’ … Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” 1968.)

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12. “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, 1963.)

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13. “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” (“The Domestic Impact of the War in Vietnam, 1967.)

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14. “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” (“I Have a Dream,” 1963.)

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15. “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.” (Address at Spelman College, 1960.) Check out these other great motivational quotes to start your day.

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16. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 1963.)

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17. “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. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” (“Beyond Vietnam,” 1967.) Like many of these Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes, these vintage photos of unity encourage finding common ground.

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18. “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” (“The Purpose of Education,” 1947.)

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19. “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” (“I Have a Dream,” 1963.)

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20. “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.” (“The Death of Evil upon the Seashore,” 1956.)

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21. “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.” (Nobel Lecture, 1964.) Check out some more of our favorite inspiring peace quotes from world leaders.

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22. “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.” (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” 1968.)

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23. “We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.” (In My Own Words, published in 2002.)

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24. “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” (“All Labor Has Dignity,” 1968.) Revisit the Civil Rights era with these incredible movies about Martin Luther King, Jr.

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25. “I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.” (“I Have a Dream,” 1963.) Celebrate Dr. King’s legacy with these meaningful ways people celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

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26. “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.” (Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 1964.)

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27. “Love is the greatest force in the universe. It is the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. He who loves is a participant in the being of God.” (From a handwritten letter, mid-1960s.)

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28. “We must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.” (“Where Do We Go From Here?” 1967.)

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29. “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.” (“The Most Durable Power,” 1956.) Keep the inspiration flowing with these inspiring John Lewis quotes about voting, education, and social justice.

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30. “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.” (Christmas Sermon, 1967.)

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31. “One day we will learn that the heart can never be totally right when the head is totally wrong.” (Strength to Love, 1963.)

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32. “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,” 1963.)

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33. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 1963.)

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34. “I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems.” (“Where Do We Go From Here?” 1967.)

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35. “Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love…violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.” (Nobel Lecture, 1964.)

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36. “Hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love.” (“Where Do We Go From Here?” 1967.)

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37. “We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always right to do right.” (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 1963.) Get inside the head of anther inspiring man with these James Baldwin quotes.

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38. “The beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.” (Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 1964.)

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39. “Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude.” (“Love in Action,” 1962.)

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40. “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” (Speech in Montgomery, Alabama, 1957.)

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41. “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” (Strength to Love, 1963.)

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42. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” (From a sermon delivered in Selma, Alabama, 1965.)

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43. “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.” (“A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” 1959.)

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44. “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” (“I Have a Dream,” 1963.)

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45. “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice, say that I was a drum major for peace, I was a drum major for righteousness, and all the other shallow things will not matter.” (Sermon in Atlanta, 1968.)

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46. “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” (Washington National Cathedral, 1968.)

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47. “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.” (Speech at Glenville High School, 1967.)

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48. “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.” (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” 1968.)

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49. “If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.” (“Where Do We Go From Here?” 1967.)

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50. “There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November.” (“The Montgomery Bus Boycott,” 1955.) Now that you’ve finished reading these Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes, get even more inspired with these powerful Black History Month quotes.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for RD.com since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.