8 Martin Luther King Jr. quotes that don't sanitize his legacy

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most influential black leaders in history. His legacy has inspired people around the world to fight for equality — but that hyper-visibility has also led to the whitewashing and sanitization of his life.

King was a Baptist minister from the South, a law-breaker, a protester. He challenged norms and broke barriers, preaching about resistance and strength just as often has he preached love. But over time, many of these qualities have been written out of history.

SEE ALSO: 6 ways to meaningfully honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day

It's a disservice to King's memory to ignore the full scope of his beliefs and his complexity as a person. His words can teach us a lot about what it means to be an activist and advocate for social justice.

Check out the 8 MLK quotes:

Underrated Martin Luther King Jr. quotes
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Underrated Martin Luther King Jr. quotes

'One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws'

"Letter From Birmingham Jail," 1963

Between 1955 and 1965, King was arrested nearly 30 times. Although he was nonviolent, he resisted oppression and refused to comply with injustice.

 (Photo by Don Cravens/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

'It is a cruel jest to say a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps'

"Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," 1968

In addition to racial justice, King was a fierce advocate for the rights of the poor. Very aware of the intersection of race and class, he organized the Poor People's Campaign to fight for economic justice in the United States.

 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

'True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring' 

"Beyond Vietnam," 1967

King didn't accept lazy allyship in the 1960s. He argued that temporary band-aids over wounds of oppression underestimate the depth and magnitude of the institutions that produce them. He advocated that in order to truly help those in need, it's crucial to understand the systemic causes of poverty, racism and other social inequalities.

(Photo by Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

'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.'

"The Drum Major Instinct," 1968

King was a firm believer that we all have the capacity to make a difference — regardless of class, age or formal education.

(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

'We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed' 

"Letter From Birmingham Jail," 1963

King did not equate nonviolence with no action at all. He demanded freedom with both his words and efforts.

(Photo by Stephen Somerstein/Getty Images)

'It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important'

Speech at UCLA, 1965

One of King's most popular quotes is, "I have a dream that ... the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

But it's important to note that he also understood it wouldn't always be possible to change people's morals. He did believe, however, in the power of legislation for racial justice, and while "the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men."

 (Photo by Okamoto/PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

'The question is not if we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?'

"Letter From Birmingham Jail," 1963

King is frequently framed as a very reasonable leader, often contrasted with the extremism of Malcolm X. However, King was also viewed as an extremist for much of his time as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. And he embraced it.

In his "Letter From Birmingham Jail," he explained that being an extremist for a good cause wasn't something to be a ashamed of. "I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label," he wrote. "Was not Jesus an extremist for love?"

Photo Credit: Getty 

'Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will'  

"Letter From Birmingham Jail," 1963

As a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, King came across many people who accepted some of his beliefs and denied the ones that made them uncomfortable. In his "Letter From Birmingham Jail," he points toward white moderates who understood his argument for freedom and agreed with his goals, but disagreed with his timing or methods of direct action.

We see the same today, when people only partially quote King or misunderstand his beliefs.

Looking at his words over time, it's safe to assume King would have wanted a celebration of his life to honor all parts of him — especially the parts that challenge us.

Photo Credit: Getty 


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