Since the national holiday was officially commemorated in 1986, every third Monday in January is dedicated to honoring the civil rights legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The revolutionary activist and minister dedicated his life to the service of furthering racial equality and justice, organizing bus boycotts in Alabama early in his career. Given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. King grew to be one of the most visible spokespersons of the civil rights movement until he was assassinated at age 39 years old in 1968.
Frequently quoted by leaders everywhere today for inspiration, Dr. King’s advice is as relevant and as urgent now as it was when he first gave it decades ago.
Here’s a list of Dr. King’s best quotes on how we can be better leaders in our personal and professional lives.
On standing up for your beliefs
“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. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others,” Dr. King said in his 1963 book “Strength to Love,” a published collection of sermons that he started drafting from his jail cell after being arrested for holding a prayer vigil outside Albany City Hall in Georgia.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring,” Dr. King told a New York City church audience in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” address, which he gave a year to the day before he was assassinated.
“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, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered,” Dr. King said in his 1967 speech on why he was opposed to the Vietnam War.
“We all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade,” Dr. King said in his address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on August 16, 1967. “And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct. It is a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity.”
“Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda,” a young King wrote in 1947 in his campus newspaper the Maroon Tiger. “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”
“I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism; but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe,” Dr. King answered when asked his advice on living in a 1957 column.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” Dr. King wrote in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant,” Dr. King said in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech