A list of iconic Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes, plus how to listen to his speeches and read his work.
In celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s enduring legacy and powerful words, here is a list of some important speeches he made during his life. We’ve pulled some of our favorite quotes, but we urge you to read and watch them in their entirety to understand and appreciate the full depth of Dr. King’s radical work.
“Paul’s Letter to American Christians” (1956)
“Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be a truly Christian nation you must solve this problem…You can work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth. You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the earth. God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.”
Listen to the sermon below, or read the transcript here.
“I Have a Dream” (1963)
“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating for whites only. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963)
“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”
Read the full letter here, which Dr. King began drafting in the margins of a newspaper editorial while imprisoned.
Nobel Peace Prize Lecture (1964)
“Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”
Listen to the lecture below, or read the transcript here.
“Proud to be Maladjusted” (1966)
“There are some things in our society and some things in our world for which I am proud to be maladjusted. And I call upon all men of goodwill to be maladjusted to these things until the good society is realized. I must honestly say to you that I never intend to adjust myself to racial segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself 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, leave millions of God’s children smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.”
Watch a clip of the address below, and read the transcript here of the version of this speech delivered March 17, 1966 at Southern Methodist University.
“The Other America” (1967)
“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few 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, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
“The Three Evils of Society” (1967)
“And so the collision course is set. The people cry for freedom and the congress attempts to legislate repression. Millions, yes billions, are appropriated for mass murder; but the most meager pittance of foreign aid for international development is crushed in the surge of reaction. Unemployment rages at a major depression level in the black ghettos, but the bi-partisan response is an anti-riot bill rather than a serious poverty program.”
Learn more about the Three Evils of Poverty, Racism, and Militarism here and listen to the speech below.
“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” (1967)
“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 deepest 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.”
Listen to the audio recording below, and read the transcript here.
“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” (1968)
“All we say to America is to be true to what you said on paper…Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights. And so just as I say we aren’t going to let any dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on. We need all of you.”
There are many more speeches and writings available and we encourage you to watch, listen to, and read them. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University is a great resource, as is The King Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
And in the true spirit of Dr. King, we hope you take time today and all days to serve your community and help people who need help. Only together can we achieve his dream.