27 Martin Luther King Jr. quotes to remember under the new president.

Five days after Americans celebrate and honor Martin Luther King Jr., Donald Trump will be inaugurated as our 45th president.

It's been nearly 50 years since King was assassinated for his role as a leader in the fight for civil rights and racial equality. As we enter this new era — one in which, for many, it feels like King's dream of America is far out of reach — it's more important than ever to reflect on what King truly stood for.

Here are 27 quotes from the man himself that show us his actual ideal vision of America — and how far we still have to go before we get there.


Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington, D.C. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

1. King reminded us to stand up and speak out against the injustices we see in our world.

"To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system; thereby the oppressed become as evil as the oppressor," King wrote in his essay "Three Ways of Meeting Oppression."

"Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. ... To accept injustice or segregation passively is to say to the oppressor that his actions are morally right."

2. It's better to be frustrated with an unjust world than to just accept it.

In his sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood, King said, "There are some things in our nation to which I’m proud to be maladjusted, to which I call upon all men of goodwill to be maladjusted until the good society is realized. ... I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence."

3. Just because something is legal, that doesn't make it right, and not everything that is illegal is wrong.

"One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws," King said in "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."

4. How do you tell the difference between right and wrong? It's easy.

King explained this simply, again in "Letter From a Birmingham Jail": "Any law that uplifts the human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."

He expanded on this idea in his "Rediscovering Lost Values" sermon: "Some things are right and some things are wrong. Eternally so, absolutely so. It's wrong to hate. It always has been wrong, and it always will be wrong. It's wrong in America, it's wrong in Germany, it's wrong in Russia, it's wrong in China. It was wrong in 2000 B.C., and it's wrong in 1954 A.D. It always has been wrong, and it always will be wrong."

5. Everyone deserves access to health care.

"Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane," King said at the Second National Convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights in 1966.

6. Everyone also deserves to earn a living wage, have a safe work environment, and not be exploited by their bosses.

"The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it," King said in a 1961 address to the AFL-CIO, "by raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed-of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them."

7. King believed every person has a right to food and shelter.

"Why should there be hunger and privation in any land, in any city, at any table when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life?" King said in his 1964 Nobel lecture, "The Quest for Peace and Justice."

8. King wanted people to know there are fair ways to distribute wealth within the framework of democracy.

"You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the Earth," King said in "Paul's Letter to American Christians."

"God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and He has left in this universe 'enough and to spare' for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth."

9. Money is not a measurement of virtue, righteousness, or meaning.

"I am afraid that many among you are more concerned about making a living than making a life," King also said in "Paul's Letter to American Christians."

10. People have a right to vote. Period.

"All types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition," King said in his "Give Us the Ballot" speechand it's still true.

"... Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights."

11. From employment to marriage to education to health care and beyond, civil and social rights matter for all people.

"If America is to remain a first-class nation, it cannot have second-class citizens," King preached in "The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness."

12. We can't pass laws to make people get along with or accept people, but we can and should pass laws to protect the oppressed from harm.

(Lookin' at you, HB2 and First Amendment Defense Act.)

"It may be true that morality can't be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also," King said in a 1966 speech at Southern Methodist University.

13. The most morally bankrupt people are the ones concerned more about getting caught than about doing something wrong in the first place.

"In a sense, we are no longer concerned about the Ten Commandments. ... Everybody is busy, as I have said so often, trying to obey the eleventh commandment: 'Thou shalt not get caught,'" King said in "Keep Moving From This Mountain."

14. King understood the U.S. is not a Christian nation.

Yes, he was a minister, but King was also a firm believer in separation of church and state.

"I endorse it [the Supreme Court's decision to outlaw prayer in school]," King explained in a 1965 interview with Playboy. "I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right."

15. King also wanted people to know religion is no excuse for scientific ignorance.

"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. They are complementary," he wrote in his book "Strength to Love."

"Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism."

16. King was pro-choice and valued the many good things Planned Parenthood contributes to the world.

"Family planning, to relate population to world resources, is possible, practical, and necessary," he said in his acceptance speech for the Margaret Sanger Award from Planned Parenthood.

17. King spoke passionately about our economic struggles being largely the same, regardless of skin color.

"All too often when there is mass unemployment in the black community, it's referred to as a social problem, and when there is mass unemployment in the white community, it's referred to as a depression. But there is no basic difference," he said in his "Other America" speech from 1968.

"Most of the poverty stricken people of America," he said later in the speech, "are persons who are working every day, and they end up getting part-time wages for full-time work. ... This has caused a great deal of bitterness. It has caused a great deal of agony. It has caused ache and anguish. It has caused great despair, and we have seen the angered expressions of this despair and this bitterness in the violent rebellions that have taken place in cities all over our country."

18. This is why King believed that white laborers and black civil rights activists should work together toward their shared goals.

"Our needs are identical with labor's needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health, and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community," he said in a speech to the AFL-CIO.

19. Protests and riots aren't a problem. They're symptoms of bigger, systemic issues.

"A riot is the language of the unheard," King said in "The Other America." "And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity."

20. There's never a correct "time" or "way" to achieve justice and change.

"I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation," King said in "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." "For years now I have heard the word 'wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'wait' has almost always meant 'never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"

21. Michelle Obama may have perfected the catchphrase "When they go low, we go high," but it was central to King's beliefs as well.

"We must not seek to defeat or humiliate the enemy but to win his friendship and understanding," he said in "Loving Your Enemies," urging us all to resist our natural instincts toward pettiness and spite. "At times we are able to humiliate our worst enemy. Inevitably, his weak moments come and we are able to thrust in his side the spear of defeat. But this we must not do. Every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill which have been blocked by impenetrable walls of hate."

22. Everyone deserves empathy and compassion.

From "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence":

23. Although he was committed to nonviolence, King also made it clear: You cannot be moderate in the face of oppression and hate.

"The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be," King said in "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." "Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"

24. King warned of the dangers of giving power to thin-skinned egomaniacs, too.

"The individual who is self-centered, the individual who is egocentric ends up being very sensitive, a very touchy person," King said in "Conquering Self-Centeredness." "And that is one of the tragic effects of a self-centered attitude, that it leads to a very sensitive and touchy response toward the universe. These are the people you have to handle with kid gloves because they are touchy, they are sensitive. And they are sensitive because they are self-centered. They are too absorbed in self and anything gets them off, anything makes them angry."

25. The U.S. president should be held to a higher standard of diplomacy, humility, and temperament.

As he said in his Emancipation Proclamation Centennial Address, "No president can be great, or even fit for office, if he attempts to accommodate to injustice to maintain his political balance."

26. A society is built up by people working together.

"No matter where you stand, no matter how much popularity you have, no matter how much education you have, no matter how much money you have, you have it because in this universe helped you to get it," King said in his speech about self-centeredness.

"And when you see that, you can't be arrogant, you can't be supercilious. You discover that you have your position because of the events of history and because of individuals in the background making it possible for you to stand there."

27. "All we say to America is, 'Be true to what you said on paper.'"

As King said in "I’ve Been to the Mountaintop":

It's more important than ever that we honor King's legacy.

Maybe if we start to hold ourselves to that higher standard he believed in, we can finally turn his dreams into reality and make a better America for everyone.

More

Whenever someone's words or behavior are called out as racist, a few predictable responses always follow. One is to see the word "racist" as a vicious personal attack. Two is to vehemently deny that whatever was said or done was racist. And three is to pull out the dictionary definition of racism to prove that the words or behavior weren't racist.

Honestly, as soon as someone refers to the dictionary when discussing racism, it's clear that person has never delved deeply into trying to understand racism. It's a big old red flag, every time.

I'm not an expert on race relations, but I've spent many years learning from people who are. And I've learned that the reality of racism is nuanced and complex, and resorting to a short dictionary definition completely ignores that fact. The dictionary can't include all of the ways racism manifests in individuals and society, and the limitations of dictionary definitions make it a poor tool for discussing the topic.

Since "racism" is such a loaded term for many people, let's look at such limitations through a different complex word. Let's take "anxiety." According to Merriam-Webster, "anxiety" is defined as "apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness, usually over an impending or anticipated ill."

Now imagine thinking that you understand everything that encompasses anxiety from reading that dictionary definition. Imagine thinking you could recognize the signs of anxiety in someone based on that definition alone. Ridiculous, right? The dictionary doesn't explain that some people's anxiety manifests as anger, even though it does. It doesn't say that anxiety sometimes manifests as withdrawal or aloofness. It doesn't say that you often won't see obvious signs of fear or nervousness in someone experiencing anxiety.

The dictionary doesn't offer anything close to the reality of what anxiety is or looks like. It would be silly to say that someone isn't experiencing anxiety because they're not clearly showing signs of nervousness like the dictionary definition implies. Just as the dictionary definition of anxiety is not comprehensive, neither is the dictionary definition of racism. Yet people keep using it to "prove" that something or someone isn't racist.

Fox News analyst Brit Hume just pulled that trick on Twitter to try to back up his claim that Donald Trump's "go back to" statements to four Congresswomen of color weren't technically racist.


The first Merriam-Webster entry for "racism" reads "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race."

Merriam-Webster

First of all, I'm not sure how this definition actually makes Trump's statements not racist. A belief is not always conscious, so even assuming that his racism is unconscious, a white man telling four women of color to "go back to" their countries of origin—despite three of them being born in the U.S. and the fourth being a naturalized citizen of the U.S.—is pretty objectively racist. No one knows exactly what is going on in the President's head, but such statements only being made to women of color would certainly be consistent with the behavior of someone with a belief in white people's inherent superiority.

But that simple definition isn't truly definitive, either. Shortly after Hume's tweet, Merriam-Webster pointed out a usage note for the word "racism," which clarifies that dictionaries do not provide the be-all-end-all definition of words.

Anti-racism advocates have tried time and time again to explain that racism is not as straightforward as someone saying, "I think I'm superior to people who don't share my skin color." Racism is almost never that blatant, and yet oodles of Americans refuse to call anything less than that kind of bold statement "racism." We have a long history showing exactly how white supremacy—the origin of racism in the U.S.—exerts itself in both strong and subtle ways, and thousands of hours and pages of education from experts describing how racism works on an individual and societal level. But people still insist on the simplistic narrative of "Racism=hating people of a different race."

I've seen many people, including Brit Hume, argue that the word racism has lost all meaning. Frankly, that's a copout. Racism—as both a conscious or unconscious belief of racial superiority and as a system of racial prejudice blended with power dynamics—has a broader meaning than one person hating another person for the color of their skin. But that doesn't make it meaningless.

I've also seen people complain that "everything is racist these days," but no, it's really not. We simply understand more about racism now, thanks to the field of race studies and to people of color offering their time and energy to explain it, so it's easier to identify in its various forms. In my experience, when someone's understanding of racism reaches a certain stage, they start recognizing it in places where ignorance or unconscious bias may have caused them to miss it in the past. That's not imagining racism where it doesn't exist or "calling everything racist these days"; that's simply seeing reality more clearly.

When you really dive deep into the historical, psychological, and sociological reality of racism in America, it becomes painfully obvious that racism is far more prevalent and enmeshed in our society than most people think. Until defensive, mostly-white folks stop automatically denying racism every time the word is used and stop throwing around dictionaries to avoid having to do that deep dive work, we're not going to make real headway on this issue.

Let's stop pretending that the definition and supposed overuse of the word "racism" is the problem, when the problem is racism, period.

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