Words resonate through time. Speeches, articles, poems, and books may be written for a specific time to a specific audience, but truly great ones hold meaning years later. This is true of many quotes from the era of abolition and the Civil Rights movement. While they should be understood in the context they came from, their messages remain valuable to people everywhere. Here are ten quotes that made history:
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” – Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) was an American writer, orator, abolitionist, and statesman. After escaping from slavery, he became a leader in the abolitionist movement. His first autobiography – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass – was a major bestseller in 1845. Douglass continued to advocate for the rights of freed slaves after the Civil War.
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” – Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was a founder of the NAACP and an investigative journalist. Born into slavery, she was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. In the 1890s, she documented lynchings in the United States. At the time, many claimed lynching was a punishment for criminals. Wells’ work exposed it as a brutal tactic to terrorize and oppress Black people. Harnessing journalism as her light, Wells’ work helped ensure that the injustice of lynching was not kept in the dark.
“Rule-following, legal precedence, and political consistency are not more important than right, justice and plain common-sense.” – W. E. B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was a sociologist, historian, author, Pan-Africanist, and civil rights activist. Among his many accomplishments, he was one of the founders of the NAACP in 1909. He wrote against Jim Crow laws and discrimination, advocating for full civil rights and political representation for Black people. Black Reconstruction in America (1935), where the above quote is from, challenged the then-mainstream belief that Black people were responsible for the failure of the Reconstruction Era.
“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.” – Malcolm X
Malcolm X (1925-1965) was a Black civil rights leader and a major figure in the Nation of Islam. He was born Malcolm Little but took on the letter X to represent his unknown African ancestral name. For years, he was famous as the public face of the Nation of Islam, speaking about Black empowerment and racism. Malcolm X eventually left after a series of disagreements. In 1965, he was assassinated by Nation of Islam members, though serious questions about the killing and the government’s involvement remain. Two of the men convicted were exonerated in 2021.
“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” – Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) was a leader in the civil rights movement and helped thousands of Black Americans in Mississippi become registered voters. She also supported the community through programs like the Freedom Farm Cooperative. The “sick and tired” quote comes from one of her most famous speeches in 1964 which she gave at a church in Harlem. In that speech, she described the injustices and violence faced during her attempts to vote. The quote is on her tombstone.
“O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.”
– Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes (1901-1967) was an American poet, writer, and leader in the Harlem Renaissance. His work celebrates Black cultural life and addresses racism. This line from the poem “Let America Be America Again” challenges the Utopian promise of America and reveals the harsh reality. Hughes expresses a longing for America to live up to its promise.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968) was the face of the Civil Rights Movement and a powerful writer and orator. This quote comes from “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote in 1963 after being arrested for nonviolent demonstrations against segregation. The letter was a response to one written by white religious leaders who criticized Dr. King’s tactics and labeled him an “outsider” because he wasn’t from Birmingham. Dr. King’s words explain his reason for coming to town.
“No.” – Rosa Parks
In December of 1955, Rosa Parks (1913-2005) was riding the bus home in Montgomery, Alabama. When the driver ordered her to give her seat up to a white passenger, Parks refused. She was arrested. Activists used this injustice to launch a bus boycott. Parks became a major Civil Rights icon because of her action and spent her life as an activist working for housing rights, political prisoners, and more.
“The very serious function of racism…is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” – Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison (1931-2019) was a critically-acclaimed author known for works like Beloved and The Bluest Eye. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Her writing centers on the Black American experience. The above quote comes from a 1975 speech. It remains relevant because as anyone who has experienced racism knows, speaking about it is exhausting.
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” – Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was a Black lesbian feminist writer and activist who addressed racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia. Her quote on the master’s tools comes from her famous essay of the same title, which is part of the book Sister Outsider. In the essay, she critiques non-intersectional feminism and questions whether change is possible within a racist, patriarchal framework. Throwing off that framework is the key to change.