Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2021.
More than half a century after he was silenced by a killer’s bullet, and 35 years after the nation began celebrating a federal holiday in his honor, the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. continues to reverberate.
As the preeminent voice of the civil rights movement, King’s eloquence and vision of a united America made him an icon. His powerful words – delivered through speeches, sermons and books – symbolize the utopia that our nation has always aspired to.
Few people in history have moved more than the king. His message of equality and unity is often invoked in times of turmoil, chaos and racial conflict, although his words are often taken out of their original context.
More recently, Republicans have quoted King to bolster their positions. Last week, a Republican lawmaker cited King for defending President Donald Trump during the impeachment hearing, which followed riots on Capitol Hill on January 6 by an angry mob accusing Trump of stirring up to challenge the November election results. Two years ago, Vice President Mike Pence defended Trump’s drive to build a border wall in King’s words.
President Ronald Reagan signed King’s Holiday Act into law in 1983. But in 1986, shortly before the first observance of the holiday, he used King’s words to oppose minority employment goals.
It’s not surprising that people quote King for “all kinds of purposes,” said Claiborne Carson, director of the King’s Institute for Research and Education at Stanford University.
“Attribution of such a great character gives words much more weight, so I think it will always be true that King will always be the source of a lot of quotes even by people who, if they were alive when he was alive and probably opposed,” Carson said.
Here are some examples of how the civil rights leader was cited, followed by the original context.
Quote: “The time is always right to do the right thing.”
Recently inaugurated Representative Nancy Mays said last week, “Today, I ask 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 are serious about healing the divisions in this country, Republicans and Democrats must acknowledge that this is not the first day of violence we have witnessed. We have witnessed violence across our country over the past nine months.”
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When King spoke these words at Oberlin College in October 1964, the intent was to encourage students to continue the nonviolent struggle for racial equality.
“It’s always a good time to do a good job,” King told about 2,500 students sitting and standing at Finny Chapel. King had just won the Nobel Peace Prize and was giving a speech called “The Future of Integration.” He repeated this quote almost verbatim in June 1965 at the start of Oberlin after he implored graduates to remain diligent and active in the fight for equality.
“No one should give you the impression that the problem of racial injustice will resolve itself,” King said. “Don’t let anyone give you the impression that only time will solve the problem.”
Citing the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church 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 tireless work of dedicated individuals,” and they “recognize that the time is always right to do the right thing.”
Quote: “Now is the time to make the promises of true democracy”
King said these words during his “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the most significant moments in civil rights history. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on August 28, 1963, King delivered his address to a quarter of a million people gathered at the Washington March for Jobs and Freedom.
In January 2019, Vice President Mike Pence cited King for defending Trump’s efforts to persuade Congress to fund a steel barrier on the US-Mexico border.
“One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King is ‘Now is the time to make the promises of true democracy,’” Pence said on CBS. “You think about how he changed America. He inspired us to change through the legislative process to become a more perfect union. That is exactly what President Trump is calling on Congress to do.”
Pence’s comments were met with quick criticism.
“Equating the legacy of one of America’s best statesmen and civil rights champions with a vanity project built on racist and hateful ideology is disgraceful,” Representative Jackie Speer, D-Calif., wrote on Twitter shortly after Pence’s remarks.
When King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in March 1963 in Washington for Jobs and Freedom, America was on the brink of a significant legal change.
The massive display of strength and unity, including an attendance of tens of thousands of whites, contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act the following year.
King said the powerful crowd gathered in the nation’s capital “exaggerated the shameful (state)” of a country allegedly founded to provide freedom and justice for all people.
“We have also come to this sacred spot to remind America of the great urgency now,” King said. “This is not the time to engage in the luxury of sedation or take sedative medicine for gradualism. Now is the time to make real promises of democracy.”
Quote: “I have a dream that my four young 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, as saying that African Americans had experienced economic growth under his administration and opposed minority employment goals.
“We are committed to a society in which all men and women have an equal opportunity to succeed, and so we are against the use of quotas,” Reagan said.
“We want a colour-blind society,” he said. “A society, in the words of Dr. King, judges people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their personality.”
King’s statement came at the end of his “I Have a Dream” speech, which highlighted black America’s resentment of segregation and economic conditions. King used the images to illustrate what a racially just America would look like, including a dream statement and many other statements about freedom.
Whether Republican, Democrat or Civic, Carson said, quoting King, what matters are the actions that follow the words. “People can twist words any way they want,” Carson said. “It’s the idea and the values behind the words that really matter.”