8 Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes That Don’t Sanitize His Legacy
To honor his life and work on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, these underrated quotes paint a more accurate and extensive picture of King — one that both inspires and challenges us.
“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” 1963
Between 1955 and 1965, King was arrested nearly 30 times. Although he was nonviolent, he resisted oppression and refused to comply with injustice.
“It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself up by his bootstraps.” “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” 1968
In addition to racial justice, King was a fierce advocate for the rights of the poor. Very aware of the intersection of race and class, he organized the Poor People’s Campaign to fight for economic justice in the United States.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” “Beyond Vietnam,” 1967
King didn’t accept lazy allyship in the 1960s. He argued that temporary band-aids over wounds of oppression underestimate the depth and magnitude of the institutions that produce them. He advocated that in order to truly help those in need, it’s crucial to understand the systemic causes of poverty, racism and other social inequalities.
“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
King was a firm believer that we all have the capacity to make a difference — regardless of class, age or formal education.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” 1963
King did not equate nonviolence with no action at all. He demanded freedom with both his words and efforts.
“It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.” Speech at UCLA , 1965
One of King’s most popular quotes is, “I have a dream that … the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
But it’s important to note that he also understood it wouldn’t always be possible to change people’s morals. He did believe, however, in the power of legislation for racial justice, and while “the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men.”
“The question is not if we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or love?’ “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” 1963
King is frequently framed as a very reasonable leader, often contrasted with the extremism of Malcolm X. However, King was also viewed as an extremist for much of his time as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. And he embraced it.
In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” he explained that being an extremist for a good cause wasn’t something to be a ashamed of. “I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label,” he wrote. “Was not Jesus an extremist for love?”
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is ore frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” 1963
As a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, King came across many people who accepted some of his beliefs and denied the ones that made them uncomfortable. In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” he points toward white moderates who understood his argument for freedom and agreed with his goals, but disagreed with his timing or methods of direct action.
We see the same today, when people only partially quote King or misunderstand his beliefs.
Looking at his words over time, it’s safe to assume King would have wanted a celebration of his life to honor all parts of him — especially the parts that challenge us.
SaVonne Anderson is a New Media & Digital Design student at Fordham University. She was a Social Good editorial intern with interests in race and feminism. Her passions include food, travel, and all things Beyoncé. Follow SaVonne on Twitter and Instagram.
Martin Luther King, Jr., on Vietnam—and Today
Martin Luther King, Jr., is best known for his speech “I Have a Dream.” Relatively few people know of his speech “Beyond Vietnam,” delivered on April 4, 1967, one year before he was assassinated. It is a prophetic, unsettling, and radical speech that still resonates today. It is little wonder that Americans prefer to remember the optimism of “I Have a Dream” versus the profound moral, political, and economic challenge that King lays down in this speech. What follows are highlights from this speech. The full speech can be found here.
“Beyond Vietnam” delivered at Riverside Church, New York, New York, 4 April 1967
Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak…Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement, and pray that our inner being may be sensitive to its guidance. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.
….Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.” It can never be saved so long as it destroys the hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that “America will be” are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…we will find ourselves organizing ‘clergy and laymen concerned’ committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life.
This is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” …The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
A true revolution of values will lay hand[s] on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” ….A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.
There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
A genuine revolution of values means…that…Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.
We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace…and justice. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. Grove/Atlantic published his novel The Sympathizer in 2015 (winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize), and will publish his short story collection The Refugees in 2017. He also wrote Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016), finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. He is the editor of diaCRITICS.
diaCRITICS is the blog for the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN). See dvanonline.org for more information. diaCRITICS are also those accent marks in Vietnamese that confuse foreigners learning the language. Ma is ghost. Má is mother. So don’t call your mother a ghost, or a ghost your mother. diaCRITICS are also the bloggers for this site. Get it? A blogger here is a diaCRITIC. diaCRITICS write about anything and everything related to the arts and culture of the Vietnamese in their homeland or in the diaspora. Music, film, literature, fashion, food, visual arts, you name it. Oh yeah, maybe politics too. And history. And any good story that comes our way. Have we forgotten something? diaCRITICS is entirely voluntary, but that doesn’t mean it’s free. It still costs money to host the site on our server. Please donate to DVAN, diaCRITICS’ parent organization via editor Viet Thanh Nguyen’s oneVietnam page. Donations are tax deductible.
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Remembering UE’s Relationship with Martin Luther King
“I am certain that all men of goodwill are eternally grateful to that section of the labor movement which is working so courageously to end discrimination on the job for all people.” Martin Luther King Jr. letter to UE Director of Organization James J. Matles, November 25, 1957
The relationship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and UE goes back to 1956, when King first made his mark in the struggle for civil rights by leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama. Thanks to the folks at the Archives Service Center at the University of Pittsburgh, home of the UE Archives, the union recently learned of a letter dated July 25, 1956 and signed by King, thanking UE Local 331 in Rome, NY for its $25 donation to that campaign. The boycott started when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. For more than a year, Montgomery’s African American residents refused to ride the buses, walking long distances to jobs and other destinations, until they won a court order integrating public transit. At the urging of local NAACP President E.D. Nixon, who was also a union member in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Montgomery Improvement Association had asked King, then a 26-year-old Atlanta-born minister, to lead the campaign.
It’s probable that other locals besides Local 331 contributed financial support to the campaign. UE donated to other campaigns led by Dr. King, including a 1962 push by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to register black voters in the South despite violent resistance by state governments.
The 1957 King letter quoted above was in support of UE’s campaign to end racial discrimination by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Before the company dismantled its manufacturing operations in the 1980s, Westinghouse had been, next to GE, the largest employer of UE members, with UE locals in Westinghouse plants from coast to coast. UE was far ahead of the rest of the labor movement in fighting employment discrimination and by 1954 the union has succeeded in including “no discrimination” clauses in 87 percent of all UE contracts. But Westinghouse was one of the stubborn holdouts, and UE leader Jim Matles had sent King a report summarizing the union’s campaign to win such a clause in contract negotiations then underway. “We feel it is the special responsibility of the labor movement to make the fight for equal opportunity for the Negro workers in the shops and to end discrimination on the job,” wrote Matles to King. “The leadership that you have provided in the struggle against discrimination of the Negro people has earned the admiration of our entire union.”
Dr. King was scheduled to speak at UE’s 27th National Convention in Long Beach, California in 1962. But his arrest by authorities in Albany, Georgia prevented his appearance at the convention, and Rev. Maurice Dawkins, SCLC representative in Los Angeles, spoke in his place.
UE turned out hundreds of members for the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, at which Dr. King delivered his memorable “I Have a Dream” speech.
UE and Dr. King had a two-way relationship of respect and solidarity. Dr. King provided important support to UE in a a 16-week strike by members of Local 190 at Phoenix Closures in Chicago in 1966. The company hired some Black workers as scabs.
King wrote and signed a powerful leaflet addressed to the strikebreakers, warning them not to “rob yourself of our inherited dignity by scabbing.” He told them that this was a union that fights discrimination, and that they were scabbing on fellow Black workers. “Today there are 37 Negroes who are members of the Union who are on strike. Their families’ future, their wages and working conditions are also at stake,” King wrote. “You know what you are doing is morally wrong. Scabbing will give you a reputation that all the money in the world can’t wash clean.”
The company later changed its name to Kerr Glass, and UE Western Region President Carl Rosen worked there in later years. The plant closed in 1994. Rosen knows the history of that strike and shared this:
“The plant was located in a working-class Eastern European area and the company had a history of not hiring any African-Americans, but when the strike got long enough they tried to hire them as scabs. The letter from Dr. King was key at getting them out of the plant. The strike settled the next week. Soon after that the union took the lead in pushing the company to hire African-American employees, including helping a group of Black women go after the company through the EEOC for discriminatory hiring practices. They eventually won both jobs and a chunk of cash, coming to be known in the shop as ‘Bonus Babies.’ Both the shop and the union leadership were well integrated when I was hired there in 1984, with some of the Bonus Babies among the local leaders.”
UE members have honored the Dr. King’s memory in many ways in the decades since his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, where he was leading a campaign in support of striking city sanitation workers. Many locals fought hard, and successfully, to make Martin Luther King Day a paid holiday in their workplaces. Locals have participated in countless memorial events and marches over the years, and this year as in the past Local 150 will hold an event in memory of Dr. King and his support for labor. To UE members, honoring Martin Luther King’s legacy means continuing his struggles for equality, peace and economic justice for all.