Martin Luther King Day 2023: Activist’s most inspiring quotes

The trailblazing civil-rights leader won the Nobel Peace Prize (PA Archive / PA Images)
The trailblazing civil-rights leader won the Nobel Peace Prize (PA Archive / PA Images)

It’s Martin Luther King Day, a day that celebrates the life and legacy of a man who brought hope and healing to America.

Mr King was a Christian minister and campaigner who became a spokesperson and leader in the US civil-rights movement from 1955 until he was assassinated in 1968.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, he believed in non-violent change inspired by his Christian values and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

On April 4, 1968, Mr King was fatally shot on a hotel balcony after attending a black workers’ rights demo in Memphis, Tennessee.

Dr Martin Luther King arriving at Heathrow Airport from New York for a BBC interview. (PA Archive / PA Images)
Dr Martin Luther King arriving at Heathrow Airport from New York for a BBC interview. (PA Archive / PA Images)

When is Martin Luther King Day?

The day is observed on the third Monday of January each year.

The earliest date of the holiday is celebrated on January 15 and the latest is January 21.

Today, Monday, January 16, Martin Luther King Day is being celebrated this year.

However, Mr King’s actual birthday is January 15.

Martin Luther King Jr quotes

The trailblazing civil-rights leader was known for his elouency in his letters, sermons, and speeches. Here are some of his more notable quotes:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Dr Martin Luther King during a visit to London, in connection with the publication of his book on civil rights, j in 1968, not long before he was assassinated (PA Archive / PA Images)
Dr Martin Luther King during a visit to London, in connection with the publication of his book on civil rights, j in 1968, not long before he was assassinated (PA Archive / PA Images)

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.”

“I am not interested in power for power’s sake, but I’m interested in power that is moral, that is right, and that is good.”

“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.”

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really co-operating with it.”

“Let no man pull you low enough to hate him.”

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Dr Martin Luther King at Heathrow Airport, on his way to Oslo to receive his Nobel Prize (PA Archive / PA Images)
Dr Martin Luther King at Heathrow Airport, on his way to Oslo to receive his Nobel Prize (PA Archive / PA Images)

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

“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. Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”​

I Have A Dream speech

One of the most famous speeches written by Martin Luther King Jr was I Have A Dream in 1963.

Spoken during a march in Washington, he said:

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

“Five-score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

“But, one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatise a shameful condition.

“In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a cheque. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned. Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad cheque, a cheque which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.

Martin Luther King - In pictures

American civil rights leader Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, where he gave his 'I Have A Dream' speech (Getty Images)
American civil rights leader Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, where he gave his 'I Have A Dream' speech (Getty Images)
1964: Coretta Scott King and her husband Martin Luther King on 9 December 1964 in Oslo where the US clergyman and civil rights leader received 10 December the Nobel Peace Prize (AFP/Getty Images)
1964: Coretta Scott King and her husband Martin Luther King on 9 December 1964 in Oslo where the US clergyman and civil rights leader received 10 December the Nobel Peace Prize (AFP/Getty Images)
1964: Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King speak with reporters in Louisville on 29 March 1964 (AP)
1964: Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King speak with reporters in Louisville on 29 March 1964 (AP)
A telegram to a jailed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from boxer Muhammad Al (Getty Images)
A telegram to a jailed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from boxer Muhammad Al (Getty Images)
1961: American clergyman and civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King (1929  - 1968) on 23 May 1961 (Getty Images)
1961: American clergyman and civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) on 23 May 1961 (Getty Images)
1963: Civil rights Leaders hold hands as they lead a crowd of hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington on 28 August 1963 (Getty Images)
1963: Civil rights Leaders hold hands as they lead a crowd of hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington on 28 August 1963 (Getty Images)
1963: Rev. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders gather before a rally at the Lincoln Memorial on 28 August 1963 in Washington (Getty Images)
1963: Rev. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders gather before a rally at the Lincoln Memorial on 28 August 1963 in Washington (Getty Images)
1963: American president John F. Kennedy in the White House with leaders of the civil rights 'March on Washington' (left to right) Whitney Young, Dr Martin Luther King (1929  - 1968), Rabbi Joachim Prinz, A. Philip Randolph, President Kennedy, Walter Reuther (1907 - 1970) and Roy Wilkins. Behind Reuther is Vice-President Lyndon Johnson on 28 August 1963 (Getty Images)
1963: American president John F. Kennedy in the White House with leaders of the civil rights 'March on Washington' (left to right) Whitney Young, Dr Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968), Rabbi Joachim Prinz, A. Philip Randolph, President Kennedy, Walter Reuther (1907 - 1970) and Roy Wilkins. Behind Reuther is Vice-President Lyndon Johnson on 28 August 1963 (Getty Images)
1964: American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jnr (1929 - 1968 (Getty Images)
1964: American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jnr (1929 - 1968 (Getty Images)
1964: American civil rights leader Martin Luther King (1929  - 1968) (left) receives the Nobel Prize for Peace from Gunnar Jahn, president of the Nobel Prize Committee, in Oslo on 10 December 1964 (Getty Images)
1964: American civil rights leader Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) (left) receives the Nobel Prize for Peace from Gunnar Jahn, president of the Nobel Prize Committee, in Oslo on 10 December 1964 (Getty Images)
1964: American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 - 1968) stands with his wife Coretta and New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner as is presented with the Medal of Honour of the City of New York in 18 December 1864 (Getty Images)
1964: American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 - 1968) stands with his wife Coretta and New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner as is presented with the Medal of Honour of the City of New York in 18 December 1864 (Getty Images)

“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this cheque, a cheque that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

“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 tranquillising drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.1963 is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquillity in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

“But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: in the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvellous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realise that their destiny is tied up with our destiny [sustained applause], and they have come to realise that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

Martin Luther King addresses a meeting in Chicago, Illinois, in May 1966 (Jeff Kamen / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
Martin Luther King addresses a meeting in Chicago, Illinois, in May 1966 (Jeff Kamen / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

“And, as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied [applause] as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating for whites only. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

“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.”

“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.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“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. I have a dream today.

“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ’nullification’, one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

“This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

“This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: ’My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!’

“And ,if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that: Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside let freedom ring.

“And, when this happens, and 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! Great God Almighty, we are free at last!’