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9 quotations from Martin Luther King Jr. on work, wealth, and love

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U.S. citizens today mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but the Baptist minister’s inspirational plea for civil rights and human dignity echoed across the Atlantic and inspired millions around the world. In his memory, here are nine quotations from MLK Jr. on work, trade, morality, and love.

On international free trade:

Maybe you haven’t ever thought about it, but you can’t leave home in the morning without being dependent on most of the world. You get up in the morning, and you go to the bathroom and you reach over for a sponge, and that’s even given to you by a Pacific Islander. You reach over for a towel, and that’s given to you by a Turk. You reach down to pick up your soap, and that’s given to you by a Frenchman. Then after dressing, you rush to the kitchen and you decide this morning that you want to drink a little coffee; that’s poured in your cup by a South American. Or maybe this morning you prefer tea; that’s poured in your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you want cocoa this morning; that’s poured in your cup by a West African. Then you reach over to get your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning you are dependent on more than half of the world.

(“Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool.” August 27, 1967.)

Why Martin Luther King Jr. rejected Communism:

Communism, avowedly secularistic and materialistic, has no place for God. … Since for the Communist there is no divine government, no absolute moral order, there are no fixed, immutable principles; consequently almost anything – force, violence murder, lying – is a justifiable means … And if man’s so-called rights and liberties stand in the way of that end, they are simply swept aside. His liberties of expression, his freedom to vote, his freedom to listen to what news he likes or to choose his books are all restricted. Man becomes hardly more, in communism, than a depersonalized cog in the turning wheel of the state.

(from Strive Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. 1957.)

Jesus did not condemn wealth:

Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth. It’s true that one day a rich young ruler came to him raising some questions about eternal life and Jesus said to him, “Sell all.” But in that case Jesus was prescribing individual surgery and not setting forth a universal diagnosis. … [T]his man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on God.

(“Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool.” August 27, 1967.)

On the dignity of all labor:

After we’ve discovered what God called us to do, after we’ve discovered our life’s work, we should set out to do that work so well that the living, the dead, or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. … [W]e must see the dignity of all labor. … Even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; sweep streets so well that all the host of Heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”

(“Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” April 9, 1967.)

What makes a law just or unjust?

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

(“Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” April 16, 1963.)

Injustice threatens every human being:

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. … Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

(“Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” April 16, 1963.)

Strong nations depend on strong families:

Home life in Rome frequently descended into orgies of sexuality and license in which the true value perished. If we aren’t careful the same thing will happen in America and our nation will sink to the level of a third- or fourth-rate power in world affairs. The relentless lesson of history cannot be escaped, and that is when the family structure begins to break down, the structure of the nation itself begins to crack and crumble.

(“The Crisis in the Modern Family.” May 8, 1955.)

Responding to injustice:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.

(“Loving Your Enemies.” December 25, 1957.)

On the right way to judge individuals:

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.

(“I Have a Dream” speech. August 28, 1963.)

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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