You hear them every year around this time: The famous, feel-good Martin Luther King Jr. quotes about looking over the mountaintop, about judging people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, about children in cross-racial friendships holding hands.
Of course, America's favorite civil rights sound bites don't represent King's entire life or worldview. It's no secret that he was more revolutionary than his most famous quotes suggest and that he talked about a lot more than just his famous "dream." And the quotes that do outline his broader vision tend to get ignored — because they're more sobering than inspiring, or because they're too specific to be deployed by commentators seeking to invoke King in support of their own opinions.
That's too bad. Many of the sentiments that are less quotable — that don't lend themselves to mugs or T-shirts — are the very same ones that demonstrate King's most interesting and impressive qualities: He was insightful, edgy, funny, bold, and not at all shy with the criticism— plus, he was pretty good at predicting the future.
Here are a few of the best lesser-known MLK quotes, on everything from the work of William Faulkner to the Vietnam War.
1) In March 1956, speaking at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York — his first address in the North since the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott — he dropped the soaring rhetoric and made the sentiment underlying the protest very plain:
Today's expression in Montgomery is the expression of 50,000 people who are tired of being pushed around.
2) And he was perfectly clear about the source of the conflict surrounding the civil rights movement:
Yes, there are tensions in the South. But the tension we experience there is due to the revolutionary reevaluation of the Negro by himself.
3) He proved he wasn't afraid to point out the ignorance of his critics. He had this remark for William Faulkner, who'd recently said the civil rights activists should calm down while white people got used to the idea of Black people having equal rights. King's message was essentially, "Sorry, not gonna happen":
We can't slow up because of our love for democracy and our love for America. Someone should tell Faulkner that the vast majority of the people on this globe are colored.
4) He used a little bit of humor to explain how messed up things were in the South:
Dixie has a heart all right. But it's having a little heart trouble right now.
5) In the address he delivered at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march on March 25, 1965, he gave credit where credit was due to white allies — with a nod to the idea that the "ugly" tradition of racism was nothing that anyone should be getting all sentimental about:
On our part we must pay our profound respects to the white Americans who cherish their democratic traditions over the ugly customs and privileges of generations and come forth boldly to join hands with us.
6) He also broke some news to poor white people: They weren't exactly winning in a segregated society:
If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow.
7) In a speech titled "Beyond Vietnam," delivered in New York on April 4, 1967, he showed he didn't see anything through rose-colored glasses, and admitted that he wasn't super hopeful about America’s prospects in Southeast Asia:
The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve.
8) He made it very clear that in his view, no one was excused from working for justice, saying, "Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest."
9) Sadly, he made a pretty decent prediction in this "rallies without end" bit:
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing "clergy and laymen concerned" committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.
10) He admonished those who couldn't see the structural forces in need of combating:
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
11) He called for an endless battle (against the right targets, of course) saying, "Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism."
So tell your friends you're celebrating King's life this year by refusing to be pushed around.