What Would Martin Luther King Say?

The civil rights leader’s timeless words on 10 issues plaguing today's world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. (Photo: Getty Images)
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

Forty-four years after his death, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words are as relevant today as they were during his lifetime. Racism, poverty, a broken political system, the threat of nuclear holocaust—the same issues that plague us today are what haunted the young civil rights activist before his untimely death.

Why should there be hunger and deprivation 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?

The intransigence of the issues says more, perhaps, about the world we live in than it does about King. But this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it’s worth taking a look back at the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s enduring literary legacy. His evolving stream of ideas may have been stopped four decades ago, but his words live on through today. 

PURPOSE OF EDUCATION

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically... Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

HUNGER PARADOX

“Why should there be hunger and deprivation 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? There is no deficit in human resources. The deficit is in human will.”

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

POVERTY

“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”

BULLYING

“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

RACISM

“Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them.”

PARTISAN POLITICS

“When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.”

MILITARY SPENDING

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

SCIENCE VS RELIGION

“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

NUCLEAR HOLOCAUST

“It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence, and the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.”

WORKING LIFE

“Whatever your life’s work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.”

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