Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2021.
More than half a century after an assassin’s bullet silenced him, and 35 years after the nation began observing a federal holiday in his honor, Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy still resonate.
As the preeminent voice of the civil rights movement, King’s eloquence and vision for a united America made him an icon. His powerful words – delivered through sermons, speeches and books – symbolize a utopia to which our nation always aspires.
Few people in history have been quoted more than King. His message of equality and unity are often summoned in times of confusion, chaos and racial strife, though his words are often taken out of their original context.
Lately, Republicans have quoted King to advance their positions. Last week, a Republican lawmaker quoted King to defend President Donald Trump during his impeachment hearing, which followed the Capitol Hill riot Jan. 6 by an angry mob Trump is accused of stirring up to dispute the results of the election in November. Two years ago, Vice President Mike Pence defended Trump’s quest for a border wall by way of King’s words.
President Ronald Reagan signed the King holiday bill in 1983. But in 1986, shortly before the first observance of the holiday, he used King’s words to oppose minority hiring goals.
Clayborne Carson, who directs the King Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, said it isn’t surprising that people quote King for “all kinds of purposes.”
“Attributing to a great figure like that gives the words a lot more weight, so I think it’s always going to be true that King is always going to be a source of a lot of quotes even by people who, if they had been alive when he was alive, would probably be opposing him,” Carson said.
Here are a few examples of how the civil rights leader has been quoted, followed by the original context.
Quote: ‘The time is always right to do what is right’
Newly sworn-in Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., said last week, “Today, I’m asking my colleagues to remember the words of the legendary … Dr. Martin Luther King who once said, ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’
“If we’re serious about healing the divisions in this country, Republicans and Democrats need to acknowledge this is not the first day of violence we’ve seen. We’ve seen violence across our country for the last nine months.”
When King spoke those words at Oberlin College in October 1964, it was to encourage students to sustain the nonviolent fight for racial equality.
“The time is always right to do right,” King told roughly 2,500 students seated and standing in Finney Chapel. King had just won the Nobel Peace Prize and was giving a speech titled “The Future of Integration.” He repeated this quote almost verbatim in June 1965 at Oberlin’s commencement after imploring the graduates to remain diligent and active in the fight for equality.
“Let nobody give you the impression that the problem of racial injustice will work itself out,” King said. “Let nobody give you the impression that only time will solve the problem.”
Citing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963 and the shooting of a civil rights worker in Selma, Alabama, earlier in 1965, King disparaged anyone who remained indifferent. Human progress, he said, “comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals,” and they “realize that the time is always right to do right.”
Quote: ‘Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy’
King uttered these words during his “I Have A Dream Speech,” one of the most defining moments in civil rights history. Standing on the Lincoln Memorial’s steps in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, King delivered his speech to a quarter of a million people gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
In January 2019, Vice President Mike Pence cited King to defend Trump’s efforts to convince Congress to fund a steel barrier for the U.S.-Mexican border.
“One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King was ‘Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,’” Pence said on CBS. “You think of how he changed America. He inspired us to change through the legislative process to become a more perfect union. That’s exactly what President Trump is calling on the Congress to do.”
Pence’s remarks drew swift criticism.
“To equate the legacy of one of America’s finest statesmen and champions of civil rights with a vanity project built on racist ideology and hatred is beyond disgraceful,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., tweeted shortly after Pence’s remarks.
When King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, America was on the precipice of significant legal change.
The massive show of force and unity, including tens of thousands of white people in attendance, contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act the following year.
King said the robust crowd gathered in the nation’s capital “dramatized (the) shameful condition” of a country purportedly founded to provide liberty and justice to all people.
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now,” King said. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
Quote: ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’
President Ronald Reagan quoted King during a weekly radio address in January 1986, saying African Americans had experienced economic growth under his administration and objecting to minority hiring goals.
“We are committed to a society in which all men and women have equal opportunities to succeed, and so we oppose the use of quotas,” Reagan said.
“We want a color-blind society,” he continued. “A society, that in the words of Dr. King, judges people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
King’s statement came near the end of his “I Have A Dream” speech, which highlighted Black America’s discontent with segregation and economic conditions. King used imagery to illustrate what a racially equitable America would look like, including the dream statement and many more statements about freedom.
Whether it’s a Republican, Democrat or civilian quoting King, Carson said, what matters are the actions that follow the words. “People can twist words whichever way they want. It’s the idea and the values behind the words that really matter,” Carson said.