Around mid-January every year, you start to see the annual onslaught of thousands of out-of-context Martin Luther King Jr. quotes pop up on social media. Unfortunately, many of them are misquoted (if they’re even real at all). But if these completely random strings of words can resonate so much on their own, imagine how deeply they can impact you when you understand why they were strung together in the first place.
So, go down the rabbit hole of history with us and take a deeper look at some of MLK’s quotes that still hit today.
Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes That Are Still Relevant & Powerful Today
One of the more problematic features of the internet is that anyone can cobble a few words together, slap Martin Luther King Jr.'s name on it, and call it his. But when you pluck sentences out of a speech or interview, you lose all sense of the context that gave them meaning.
So, in honor of the great activist and orator, we're investigating a few of his lesser-known quotes and giving you the context that makes them mean something.
1. Holt Street Baptist Church MIA Meeting Speech
"I want to say that in all of our actions we must stick together. Unity is the great need of the hour, and if we are united we can get many of the things that we not only desire but which are justly deserved."
On December 5, 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. included these words in a speech given outside the Holt Street Baptist Church to the Montgomery Improvement Association. It marked the first day of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a massive movement in Montgomery, Alabama which sought to end segregation in the public bus system.
In 1955, there wasn't a massive, galvanized Civil Rights Movement yet, and so King’s call to solidarity was incredibly important. For the bus boycott to work, all bus riders — of which the predominant population were black — needed to participate.
And in 2023, we saw how this sentiment still rings true with the WGA, SAG-AFTRA, Kaiser Permanente, and UAW strikes that required everyone to be all-in on the action.
2. I Have a Dream
"Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred."
The I Have a Dream speech is perhaps MLK's most well-known speech out of all his many orations. Given in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, this speech commemorated a one-day March on Washington event to demand legislators pass the Civil Rights Act. At the time, the Civil Rights Act was being debated in Congress.
There are many quotes from this speech that have gone down in soundbite history, but the one above isn’t referred to all that often. The quote speaks to the growing division bubbling within the Civil Rights Movement, as Malcolm X and other disparate thought leaders questioned the tactics used thus far.
In a world that's continuing to fight for basic liberties, this quote serves as a great reminder that oppressive figures will try to get you to rally against your neighbors instead of the systems that created those hardships in the first place. We can use MLK's words as a lesson to fight back against this manipulation whenever possible.
You can listen to MLK's own voice ring out this quote at 6:52 in this YouTube video.
3. Letters From a Birmingham Jail
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
Martin Luther King Jr. sent a long response to his fellow clergy while incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 detailing his reasons for protesting in Brimingham despite the increasingly violent protests in the area.
When staring in the face of extreme racial violence in the American south and religious doubters from their own ivory towers, it’s reasonable that MLK would touch on the idea of universal suffering. In the 2020s, we've seen a sharp rise in violence and injustice around the world. We could all do with the reminder that you don’t have to be impacted by suffering to support those who are suffering.
4. Why I Am Opposed to the Vietnam War
“There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.”
For many years, Martin Luther King Jr. stayed silent on the Vietnam War, neither casting direct support nor condemnation. Yet, in the face of growing social unrest in America, televised violence of soldiers in Vietnam, and ideas for the Poor People’s Campaign swirling in his mind, he decided to speak out.
His speech, Why I Am Opposed to the Vietnam War, detailed seven reasons for why the Civil Rights activist disapproved of the war. And early in his speech, he mentioned the quote above. Obviously, there’s a sense of self-chastisement here; he waited two years after combat troops were deployed to Vietnam to use his platform as a call to action. In a way, he's acknowledging how he too has betrayed the people with his silence.
In our digital age, where the loudest, most sensational voices get amplified, it's important to acknowledge that there does come a time when staying silent means betraying something or someone. Every voice has meaning and we can work towards using our voices as often as we can.
5. I Have Been to the Mountaintop
"But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars."
The I Have Been to the Mountaintop speech was MLK’s last speech, given in 1968 and spoken to show his support for striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Most people remember this speech because of his eery closing lines which hint at a preternatural understanding that his life was in jeopardy and that he was content with keeping it on the line.
Yet, this less-remembered quote which claims that in our greatest suffering we can find the most beauty in life hits just as hard today as it did in '68. If social media’s shown us one thing, it's that there are so many stories of human suffering, and yet through that pain and tragedy most people find something worth clinging to. And that is an affirmation we want to wake up to every morning.
Martin Luther King Jr. gave this speech on April 3rd, 1968 and just one day later he was assassinated on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel.
Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes Will Impact Generations to Come
There are very few people throughout history whose words are cemented in cultural memory. Sure, the one-off sentence like Marie Antoinette’s supposed "let them eat cake" is impressive. But you know you’ve got something special when generations later, kids can repeat phrase after phrase. Martin Luther King Jr. lives on not only through his actions but also his words, and they'll continue to resonate with us for decades to come.