44 Powerful and Inspiring Martin Luther King Quotes (plus 4 beautiful quote graphics)

Martin Luther King Quotes shown by Street Sign

For Martin Luther King day (the third Monday in January), we’re sharing some Martin Luther King quotes! These quotes share the breadth and depth of a man, sadly missed, who was assassinated in 1968 at the age of just 39.

Every year I find myself wondering what MLK would say to our current governments—and people they serve—about the systemic racism and sexism that still exists? About the ever-increasing division between the rich and the poor? About the drive for never ending growth (all corporations must make more and more stuff—and money than the previous year), even at the cost to our fellow human beings and the environment. And what he would have to say all those people who feel dispossessed and forgotten, who use division, violence and hate because they know no better and think they have no other tools at their disposal. What would MLK say to them? What would he say to us?

Jump straight to the 44 Martin Luther King Quotes & Graphics >>

Martin Luther King Quotes at LecternA short introduction to this article

So. When I first researched Martin Luther King Jr. I was surprised by both the depth and breadth of his thinking and philosophy. We all know of the “I have a dream” speech, but did you know that, more than just being outspoken about civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr. was also very aware of the issues with capitalism, how poverty affects us, what blocks societal change—and human nature.

King firmly believed in nonviolent civil disobedience, and was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent activism. And the more I learn, the more inspired I am. And although he died over 50 years ago—his legacy (and the need for his wisdom) is as strong as ever.

Below, along with this collection of quotes, I have pulled together with a very brief “history” of Martin Luther King Jr. for people from around the globe who might not know much about him.

If you’re inspired to learn more, I recommend you read a biography. This is the book I have (link is to bookshop.org and I ordered from a local bookstore). If you have another great book recommendation, please share in the comments below.

Jump straight to the 44 Martin Luther King Quotes here >>

About Martin Luther King Day

As early as 1971, cities were honouring Martin Luther King with a special holiday. The first official motion to make his birthday a national holiday was made 4 days after his death. But it was the year 2000 before all all 50 states both recognised and observed the date, even though it had officially been signed into law as a federal holiday in 1983.

A memorial was dedicated to King on the National Mall in Washington in 2011.

A brief history of Martin Luther King Jr, American Baptist minister and Civil Rights Activist

Martin King was born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia in the United States. His father was the Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. and his mother was Alberta Williams King.

His early life

His mother Alberta was a talented organ player and choir leader, and Martin Luther King Jr. was often taken to churches to sing. Apparently he was a good singer – and enjoyed it. I wonder if this early performing is what helped him speak confidently and passionately to large groups of people.

Martin Luther King Jr. chose to add Luther to his name to honour the German Protestant religious reformer Martin Luther early on in his life.

Martin Luther King Sr. was also outspoken about racial segregation, and led a civil rights march in 1936 to protest discrimination around voting rights. He appears to have instilled many of the values and ideals that Martin Luther King Jr. carried into his adult life.

Growing up, Martin Luther King Jr. experienced many racially-based humiliations. One that is believed to have influenced him heavily is being banned from friendship with a white boy by his friend’s father when he was just 6 years old. This led to a discussion with his parents about slavery and African American history.

For much of his life, King experienced depression. Apparently at age 12, believing he was responsible for his grandmother’s death while playing with his brother (it turns out she was just unresponsive) he jumped out of a second-story window, trying to commit suicide. When he heard she was OK, apparently he just got up and walked away.

At high school he was an active debater and honed his public speaking skills. He graduated from college in 1948 with a BA in Sociology. His next step was to enroll in a Seminary, and he graduated with a Bachelors degree in Divinity in 1951.

Martin Luther King with Coretta and Yolanda

Martin Luther King with Coretta & Yolanda in 1956

Marriage and family

While studying at Boston University, Martin Luther King Jr. met Coretta Scott on a “blind date” (after an initial phonecall). They were brought together by his friend, Mary Powell when he’d asked if she knew any “nice southern girls”. He married Coretta Scott in 1953 and had four children – two girls and two boys: Yolanda King, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King, and Bernice King.

It’s reported that King restricted Coretta’s role in the civil rights movement, believing she should be a housewife and mother. He was also said to have a number of extra-marital affairs. But – it isn’t clear how much of this is invented or exaggerated by the FBI who were monitoring King and trying to discredit him. I would like to know more about King’s attitude to women, but I’m not sure it’s possible to get a clear picture decades later. I like to think that King wanted to ensure continuity of care for his children, and to protect his wife and children from death threats and the violence that threatened to (and often did) erupt during the marches and speeches.

The incident that transformed MLK into a famous civil rights leader

Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King

Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King

It was Rosa Park’s arrest for her unwillingness to give up a seat on a bus on 1st December in 1955 that led to MLK’s transformation to a national figure.

MLK was the leader of the boycott of the Montgomery bus system – which lasted for well over a year. It was an explosive time – literally: during this period he was arrested and his house was bombed.

In the end, the United States District Court made a ruling that ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses. It was this role that led to MLK becoming the most well-known spokesman of the civil rights movement.

Jump to the 44 Martin Luther King Quotes here >>

Other key events

King was a key organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 where he gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech.

In 1964, he received the Nobel Peace Prize (becoming the youngest recipient) for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. He specifically mentioned Gandhi and his methods in his acceptance speech.

He also helped to organize the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Marches in support of voting rights. After several false starts including what came to be known as  “Bloody Sunday” (the first march attempt on March 7) the full march finally took place on March 25. But not before police brutality and King’s nonviolent methods were broadcast on national television for all to see.

Other interesting facts are that he supported the use of family planning and was awarded the Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s Margaret Sanger Award in 1966. He also opposed the Vietnam War and made a speech in 1967 called, “Beyond Vietnam” that upset many people at the time.

Martin Luther King with Coretta Scott King

Martin Luther King & Coretta Scott King

He was sadly assassinated in Memphis Tennessee in April 1968. At the time he was planning a national occupation of Washington DC, which was to be named “The Poor People’s Campaign”. He was just 39 years old.

After his death, Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom. Jimmy Carter said of awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom:

Martin Luther King Jr. was the conscience of his generation. He gazed upon the great wall of segregation and saw that the power of love could bring it down. From the pain and exhaustion of his fight to fulfill the promises of our founding fathers for our humblest citizens, he wrung his eloquent statement of his dream for America. He made our nation stronger because he made it better. His dream sustains us yet. Jimmy Carter

After King’s death, his wife Coretta Scott King (and their children) continued his civil rights legacy, including creating the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

Get 4 Beautiful MLK Quote Graphics

Would you like 4 Martin Luther King quotes as gorgeous graphics to share?

  • Click here or on the image below to get a .ZIP file with these 4 graphics

Click for Martin Luther King Quotes ZIP File

Or just click on the individual Martin Luther King quote graphics in this article to see a larger version, and then save it to share!

And here are the 44 Inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes

On Hope, Change and the Future

  1. I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.
  2. We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.
  3. The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.
  4. I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

On Injustice and Capitalism

  1. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
  2. Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.
  3. Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.
  4. Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.

On Doing the Right Thing

  1. That old law about ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind. The time is always right to do the right thing.
  2. Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.
  3. 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.
  4. The time is always right to do what is right.

On Faith and Truth

  1. Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.
  2. 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.

On Being the Best You can Be

  1. 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.
  2. We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.

On Nonviolence & What it Takes to Make Change

  1. Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.
  2. Means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.
  3. Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.
  4. The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be… The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
  5. Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.

On Standing up, Being Counted and Making a Difference

  1. 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.
  2. In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
  3. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’
  4. Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service.
  5. The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.

On Education and Success

  1. The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.
  2. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.
  3. We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to mankind.

On Freedom

  1. Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
  2. A right delayed is a right denied.

On Power, Love, Kindness and Empathy

  1. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.
  2. Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.
  3. Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.
  4. Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one’s soul.

On Society and Progress

  1. A riot is the language of the unheard.
  2. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.
  3. Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.
  4. Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.

On Living – and Life Advice

  1. There is nothing more tragic than to find an individual bogged down in the length of life, devoid of breadth.
  2. An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.
  3. When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.
  4. The major problem of life is learning how to handle the costly interruptions.
  5. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
Here’s your Fierce Kindness “Quotes Practice”

To go deeper, here are 3 next steps:

As you know, one of the core principles of Fierce Kindness is creating a deep connection with yourself. So:

  1. Consider which of the above Martin Luther King quotes:
    • Most UNSETTLES you &
    • Most RESONATES with you?
  2. Write out these 2 quotes in your journal and ponder these questions over a quiet cup of tea or coffee:
    • WHY do you think you were drawn to them?
    • WHAT do you think the quote is trying to say to YOU specifically?
    • What are some IDEAS you’ve been having, of changes you could make in your life – however small?
  3. Finally, to go even deeper, put your 2 chosen quotes somewhere you’ll see them often. And then over the next month, make an effort to notice the quotes – and each time you do, ask:
    • What is this quote teaching me today/now?

Wrap-upFierce Kindness Logo

I hope you enjoyed these Martin Luther King quotes.

And if you’re looking for an inspiring movie to watch, you could try watching Selma, which is based on the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches in 1965 (which Martin Luther King led). It was nominated for Best Picture and won Best Original Song at the Oscars and also received 4 Golden Globe nominations (winning a Golden Globe for Best Original Song). Oprah even has a small, feisty role in the movie! See the Selma trailer here >>

If you liked this article with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. you may also like:

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Change the world, start with you!

Image of Martin Luther King Road Sign in Atlanta by Katherine Welles via Shutterstock

Image of Martin Luther King at Lectern by Marion S. Trikosko via The United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division

Image of Martin Luther King with wife Coretta Scott and daughter Yolanda in 1956 by Jet Magazine via Wikipedia

Image of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks by Ebony Magazine via The now defunct National Archives and Records Administration Records of the U.S. Information Agency Record Group 306

Image of Martin Luther King with wife Coretta Scott King by Herman Hiller / New York World-Telegram & Sun via The United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division


    • Emma-Louise Elsey

      Dear Lisa, thank-you so much for taking the time to comment 🙂 And very glad you enjoyed this. Warmly, Emma-Louise

  1. Arianne

    Fantastically done, Emma-Louise. I appreciate the way you made MLK global on this US holiday recognizing him for all he believed in and accomplished not only during his short life but by his legacy. I always enjoy your newsletters and your very generous organization of quotes and thought provoking questions.

    • Emma-Louise Elsey

      Dear Arianne, I am so glad you liked this article and enjoy our newsletters. One of my personal aims for Fierce Kindness is indeed to provoke thought… Thank-you for taking the time to comment! I really appreciate you 🙂 Em x

  2. Hazel

    So wonderful and inspiring. We have a MLK celebration at the local museum this afternoon/evening (YES! even in England – Martin Luther King inspired people globally).The Gospel Choir that I sing with will be performing and I’m so looking forward to the love that will be generated.

    • Emma-Louise Elsey

      Hazel, that sounds wonderful. Thank-you so much for taking the time to comment! He was a force for change and I’m so glad he also gets recognition in the UK 🙂
      Emma-Louise x


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