Martin Luther King, Jr., on Feminism

Dr. King, whose birthday we celebrate today, didn’t live long enough to see the flowering of Second Wave feminism–we relied on his widow, Coretta Scott King, to carry the torch for women’s rights and LGBT rights. But we can take heart from so many of the great civil rights leader’s words in our ongoing global struggle against the oppression of women. Here are just a few:

–Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

–A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.

–Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.

–Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

–Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.

–When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.

–The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be… The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

–Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.

–I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

Photo from Flickr user Luiz Fernando/Sonia Maria under license from Creative Commons 2.0


  1. antiintellect says:

    So many powerful quotes, and I truly appreciate men like Martin Luther King Jr for providing a template of what critical consciousness looks like. He was not perfect, but he was always striving towards greater understanding and greater love.

    • I hate it when someone says, "He was not perfect but" or "we're not perfect." Those statements are usually designed to stop conversations about serious problems.

      I am not convinced that MLK would have repented of his sexism if he had lived to see the Second Wave of American feminist activism. He may have given lip service to women's equality, but I am not convinced that he would have repented of his infidelity to Coretta. I am not convinced that he was always striving towards greater understanding and greater love.. Yes, he was a great activist, but so were many others and it's about time we started honoring them.

      • Curioserandcurioser says:

        YES! Exactly! None of those quotes mention women. He would’ve thought up a women-centric quote if he’d been women-friendly. But he didn’t. Oh well.

        • Joeseph says:

          I googled sexism and Martin Luther King because I was curious what I would find, I realized it was possible that he was sexist and wanted to see if anyone knew. But I think you’re jumping to conclusions. Of course that’s a possibility, but it’s also possible that he thought that supporting women’s rights would make it less likely for him to accomplish anything, and that fighting for african american rights would eventually make people more accepting of the concept of women’s rights in the future.

          • You can’t get everything you need from google. you should do some research on his work with Ella Baker. She basically volunteered her time to work with many of the same equal rights organizations as he, and was given basically no credit. King took advantage of an advantaged position and was of the idea that he was the perfect ‘icon’ of the movement.

        • Sorry if this is late, but, none of the aforementioned quotes even mention any specific group. I think that if you can create any suppositions from this, it’s that he wanted EVERYONE to be treated equally under the pretenses of the law. We cannot ask for our rights, we just demand them (as he said) and when we’re done, we fight for the rights of others until the day that we can all be seen as equals.

  2. Where on American television or on the internet can I find succinct and compelling information about what black wymin in America have contributed to the civil rights movement?

    • I'm researching the topic of unsung women civil rights leaders. Here's an academic abstract about it:

      Here are great books you can read on it:

      Rosa Parks : my story, Parks, Rosa, 1913-2005.

      Claudette Colvin : twice toward justice, Hoose, Phillip M.

      Ella Baker and the Black freedom movement : a radical democratic vision, Ransby, Barbara.

      The Montgomery bus boycott and the women who started it : the memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson, 1912-

      The politics of public housing : Black women's struggles against urban inequality Williams, Rhonda Y.,

      Gender and the civil rights movement, Ling, Peter J. (Peter John), 1956-

      How long? How long? : African-American women in the struggle for Civil rights Robnett, Belinda, 1956-

      Women in the Civil Rights movement : trailblazers and torchbearers, 1941-1965 Crawford, Vicki L.

      At the dark end of the street : Black women, rape, and resistance : a new history of the civil rights movement, from Rosa Parks to the rise of Black power, McGuire, Danielle L.

      • snobographer says:

        There was a podcast at the F Word about Danielle McGuire's book. I learned a lot I sadly didn't know about the civil rights movement just from that one little podcast about that one little book.

    • I said:

      I'm researching the topic of unsung women civil rights leaders.

      Also two women to look up are Lucinda Todd (the mother behind Brown V Board of Ed) and Jo Ann Robinson (the woman behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott).

  3. I hate to burst your bubble, but Martin Luther King was consistently unfaithful to Coretta Scott King and wasn't terribly eager for women to be leaders in the Civil Rights Movement.

    Your article was very disappointing and dishonest. You should have quoted the FEMINIST leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. It just shows that even feminist groups tend to privilege men over women. Disappointing.

    • Michele Kort says:

      Even feminists can be unfaithful; I don't think that taints everything MLK stood for.

      And I'm more than happy to quote the feminist leaders of the civil rights movement. It's just that Monday was the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, and that's a day to celebrate him. When the great new Freedom Riders documentary gets released–which celebrates a number of the women in the movement–the Ms. Blog will be sure to cover it.

    • It is so irritating to find people papering over Martin Luther King's sexism. Yes, I know that feminists can be unfaithful, but that still doesn't excuse King's adultery. The double standard hasn't diminished much since King's day.

      I think Martin Luther King Day should be renamed Civil Rights Day. I know MLK was the public face of the Civil Rights Movement, but he was standing on the shoulders of giants. If we REALLY want to do justice to the Civil Rights Movement, we need to honor Fred Shuttlesworth, Anne Braden, Bayard Rustin, Dolores Huerta, and Yuri Kochiyama as much as MLK. And we need to tell the truth about the deep sexism and homophobia in the movement..

      On a related note, one of NOW's goals is ending racism. But is ending sexism one the NAACP's goals? Feminist groups need to work on ending racism and civil rights groups need to work on ending sexism.

  4. PioneerGrrrl says:

    No, I do not think MLK day should be renamed.

    This was the very same 'day name' which the states refusing to recognize the good work which King did perform, utilized. And knowing this, I cannot embrace the title.

  5. From what I hear, King’s speeches only cover “Men” and “brotherhood”. He didn’t care about women’s equality or didn’t believe so. He’s not a saint, but speak about what he represents. Even our founding fathers probably didn’t believe that women were created equal, as there were no founding mother then to represent our rights and dignity.

    • I’m with Kathleen, Elaine and others. I often hear white feminists being called to task on the internalized racism of the mainstream feminist movement or questioned about what they are doing for women of color. And these criticisms and questions are often valid. But not once have I heard a person speaking on racism being asked about sexism or what they are doing specifically for women. It seems to be the old sexist double-standard. This article was very disappointing and the title so misleading as to be an outright lie. None of these quotes said anything about women, feminism or sexism. In fact, the last ironically includes those tired terms, “mankind” and “brotherhood.” I see no reason to infer that King had women’s inequality in mind when he said these words. This article says nothing about what King did or said toward that end.

  6. The idea that Martin Luther King Jr. Day should be renamed, reminds me how I basically feel how U.S. currency is “outdated.”

    It’s not that I don’t recognize the achievements gained by these men, and how they should forever be recognized and celebrated for them. But the more I keep hearing how flawed, as far as ‘isms’ go, they are, it only seems to have me lose faith in my country that things will get better for women and for other people struggling for basic rights, right now.

    The fact that we idolize them like saints, as if they are still relevant today, made me believe that while they couldn’t possibly solve every human rights issue, I didn’t imagine that they were “part of the problem,” with women’s lack of earned recognition for our achievements and acknowledgement of our own plights.

    As if Martin Luther King Jr.’s adultery and lack of a lifetime to make it up to women isn’t enough to discredit him as a ‘hero,’ the fact remains that he couldn’t see how women of his own race as of women in others are just as much human. That disturbing truth alone, is keeping me from seeing him as a hero and more of just a ‘male racial rights hero.’

    I see a true hero as someone who’s well-rounded in human civil rights causes, as human beings, we are all connected, and to get your image immortalized anywhere should be strictly for people who example this as much as possible, while getting replaced if someone new has been found to be more true to this.

  7. I can’t provide any information about the civil rights movement specifically, but long before then, a woman named Harriet Tubman, did far more for the freedom of humanity, then anyone I could even imagine, short of Jesus Christ.

    She had a kind of courage that I really can’t even comprehend. I really wish that we celebrated her birthday. But I guess we don’t really know when her birthday was, since slaves were not issued birth certificates.

  8. Be Human says:

    Nearly every city in America has a park or school or street named after MLK. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (and countless others) carried on their national indefatigable crusade for justice for decades longer than MLK and emancipated half of the human race with their efforts. Suffragists suffered jail, beatings and force feedings. Yet people will say that they don’t deserve their place in history because of the so-called “racism” in the women’s suffrage movement. In the historic photos of LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, nearly all of the leaders in the room are men. The black community was inherently patriarchal, and still is today, as we can see in the commodification and objectification of women in black culture like hip hop music videos and Spike Lee’s latest film, Chiraq. I agree with the women on this thread that say that there is a double standard among FEMINISTS to hold our own to a high moral standard while cerebrating men who fail to transcend their internalized and overt sexism. This article IS terribly misleading and pandering, whitewashing the history of sexism and hypocrisy among black male civil rights leaders–then and now.

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