MLK’s legacy lives on in his words; here’s what they might mean today | COMMENTARY

Fifty-three years after the death of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., his words still resonate with many people, and he is certainly one of the most quoted American orators. His thoughts from scores of writings and speeches are perhaps just as relevant today as they were in the ’60s as the country is roiled by issues that were also pervasive in his era: police brutality, health disparities, and racial inequality and unrest. The country is at a pivotal and volatile moment, and Dr. King, who would have turned 92 this year, might have been disappointed with what little progress has come. But he would also tell us not to give up and keep pushing forward. We need Dr. King’s words now more than ever. While it will take more than artful rhetoric for America to heal, his thoughts can bring perspective, hope and perhaps some calm.

Here are some of his quotes and how they might be interpreted today:


“We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”

When: March 25, 1965, after leaving nonviolent demonstrators on a 5-day, 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama.


What it means today:: Dr. King wanted to reminded marchers the fight for Civil Rights was not over. The same is true today. After the fallout from the attack on the Capitol, America needs to reclaim its democracy and international reputation and has a lot of work to do before it can live with its conscience again.

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

When: Written in his 1958 book “Stride Toward Freedom.”

What it means today:: Last summer’s social justice marches spotlighted killings by law enforcement and the lack of justice that follows for the victims, almost always Black men. The marches have slowed, but the problem remains — and it has been there for decades. Maryland General Assembly leadership has made police reform a priority this session. Let’s see if they succeed and bring real justice for people of all colors to the justice system.

“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

When: In March 1966 at a Convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights held in Chicago.

What it means today:: America has one of the best medical system’s in the world, but not everyone has equal access to it. The result: inequity in medicine, and for African Americans, higher rates of chronic diseases that lead to deaths at younger ages than white people. The COVID-19 pandemic has only further exposed the issue, with the virus killing people of color at higher rates. The state of the health care is no longer shocking, but it is inhumane in some ways.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”


When: In the 1963 book “Strength to Love.”

What it means today: It’s easy to ignore societal problems that aren’t part of someone’s everyday world, but it happens all the time. That mold changed some with the Black Lives Matter movement, which sparked rallies in even high-income neighborhoods like Roland Park in Baltimore City and suburban areas like Towson in Baltimore County after the death of George Floyd by police in Minnesota. We need people of all walks of life to keep up this momentum and push for the reform that will end such brutality.

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

When: Written in his 1958 book “Stride Toward Freedom.”

What it means today: President Donald Trump had a slew of enablers that allowed him to push an agenda of hate and divisiveness during his presidency. Fellow Republicans, the social media world that allowed him to use their platforms for propaganda and lies, and anyone else who thought they could ignore the president’s bad behavior are all at some fault. Ignoring what he did was allowing it to be accepted. If more people had instead protested it, perhaps, the Capitol would have been saved from ransacking by hooligans and the pride of our democracy still intact.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”


When: Montgomery, Alabama, 1957

What it means today: This is a quote that will never go out of style and that is used by many nonprofits today. One of the good things that has come out of the pandemic is that it has sowed giving hearts. More people are in need because of the financial fallout of COVID-19, and more people are stepping up to fill that need. Dr. King would be proud, particularly as MLK Day has come to be a national day of service.

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

When: 1960 during a student rally speech at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia.

What it means today: This message about not giving up can’t be more true for the U.S. right now. Yes, the country is in a bad spot, but a new president is about to take office and end four years of dysfunctional governing, and vaccine distribution has begun, meaning the pandemic will relatively soon be behind us. We can only hope that life gets better from here. We just have to hang on a few more months, even it seems like crawling to better times.

This piece is written by The Baltimore Sun Editorial Board. Editorials are the opinion of the Board, which is separate from the newsroom. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor, please send it to