Five days after Americans celebrate and honor Martin Luther King Jr., Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the USA.
It’s been nearly 50 long years since MLK Jr 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 ponder on what King truly believed in.
Here are 20 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 or even remotely close.
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.”
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” speech — and 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.
“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.'”