On Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. To me, Martin Luther King Jr. lived out the teachings of Jesus in a very public and real way that few others have accomplished. I thought I’d share some quotes of his that I find particularly interesting, inspirational, and challenging.


Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. giving his “I Have A Dream” speech during March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (aka the Freedom March). By Francis Miller, via the Google LIFE photo archive.


One of my favorite quotes of all time:

“Through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder.
Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth.
Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate.
Darkness cannot put out darkness.
Only light can do that.”

These next two remind me of a metaphor I heard once: helping people out of poverty one at a time is like pulling people out of a river. But at some point you have to look upstream and see what is pushing them in, and make it stop.  Social justice work must be combined with political activism, or it will always be a losing battle:

“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary. “

“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

This next one reminds me of another line I hear a lot from people involved in justice and equality work: My liberation is bound up in the liberation of others:

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

“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.”

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”

“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, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

“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.”

“Life’s persistent and most urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?”


UPDATE: It has come to my attention that in my fair state, our official holiday today is Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee Day:

So, I wrote to my state senator and representative:

Dear [Senator or Representative],

was very disappointed today to learn that in the State of Arkansas, today’s official holiday is Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee Day. I immediately set about to learn who my representatives are, so that I might ask them to address this disappointing combination of holidays.

It tarnishes the great, nonviolent, positive work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to insist that the State of Arkansas must celebrate him in the same breath as Robert E. Lee. It is a concession to ignorance and bigotry to combine these two holidays. Anyone who attempts to celebrate Robert E. Lee without acknowledging that he fought primarily to defend the cause of slavery is ignorant of history. The confederate states wrote articles of secession making clear exactly why they chose to secede and fight, and in each document, slavery comes up as the #1 issue. Celebrating Robert E. Lee is synonymous with celebrating slavery, and any disagreement on this point is ignorant of history.  It is also un-American to celebrate someone who tried to tear asunder the great United States.

I ask that you and the other representatives work to change the name of this holiday, so that we might truly celebrate the legacy of Dr. King without also celebrating the legacy of the slavery and injustice and hatred that he opposed.



If you’re an Arkansan and would like to see this holiday be devoted to Martin Luther King Jr. and he alone, you can find your state representatives using this map. Let them know.

2 Replies to “On Martin Luther King Jr. Day”

  1. I remember being shocked by the absurdity of the shared holiday back in high school. Catholic High used to get out of school for Lee, not MLK. My relatives all fought for the Confederacy, so I get the whole learning from our heritage and history thing. I just don’t think it should be celebrated and used to undermine great heroes of our nation like King. Learning from and celebrating are two separate things entirely. The lessons of that war should not be forgotten, as my state’s governor threatened secession after a black man became president. We’ve come so far, but have so far yet to go.


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