In every society, activism has driven progress on social, cultural, political, and economic issues. Justice and change have never come easily. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” To win progress, activists engage in a variety of efforts such as protests, boycotts, letter-writing campaigns, strikes, and much more. What motivates activism? What does it mean to be an activist? Here are fifteen powerful quotes about activism:
#1. “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” – Ovid
Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE) was a Roman poet most famous for The Metamorphoses, a collection of myths. Not much is known of his life, though he was banished by Emperor Augustus. Ovid’s quote, while not explicitly about activism, reveals a truth we see over and over again. The vast majority of activism movements take time. Progress tends to rise through generations of activists working persistently, usually against all odds. With time, however, water can shape stone.
#2. “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”- Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) was a lawyer and iconic human rights activist famous for his teachings on nonviolent resistance. His quote addresses a common question for activists: what’s the point? Doing the right thing is hard and we may not see change in our lifetimes, but as Gandhi says, doing nothing guarantees there won’t be change.
#3. “Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) was a pastor and the figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. He is famous for his nonviolent strategies, powerful speeches, and campaigns against racism, poverty, and injustice. His quote, which is from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” encapsulates the concept of “civil disobedience,” which motivated strategies like sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Activists frequently disobey laws, but when those laws are unjust, disobedience is the moral thing to do.
#4. “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”- Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn (1922-2010) was a historian, author, and activist whose work focused on class, war, race, and more. His most famous work, the 1980 book A People’s History of the United States, reckons with America’s dark side and counters the sunny, whitewashed view often taught in schools. The quote above is similar to Dr. King’s quote on unjust laws, with Zinn focusing on the connection between protest “beyond the law” and democracy. Without protest, democracy dies.
#5. “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” – Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) was a human rights activist and author. His most famous book, Night, is a memoir of surviving a concentration camp. Wiesel helped establish the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and campaigned on behalf of human rights in places like Sudan, South Africa, and Kosovo. The quote above comes from his Nobel Peace Prize speech in 1986. Wiesel acknowledges that while we can’t always stop injustice, we must always protest it.
#6. “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” – Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was a physicist and arguably history’s most famous scientist. He is known for the theory of relativity, but his work influenced quantum mechanics, as well. A German Jew, Einstein lived in Germany until 1933 when Hitler came to power. Einstein then left for the United States. In the quote above, Einstein describes why the world is so dangerous. It isn’t because there are evil people, but rather because there are other people who let evil win. We all have a responsibility to act or, according to Einstein, we’re the ones who make the world dangerous.
#7. “It is important to take action and to realize that we can make a difference, and this will encourage others to take action and then we realize we are not alone and our cumulative actions truly make an even greater difference. This is how we spread the Light. And this, of course, makes us all even more hopeful.”- Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall is an anthropologist and primatologist best known for her expertise on chimpanzees. She’s also an environmental activist and advocate, drawing attention to climate change and deforestation. In her quote, Goodall describes the cumulative effect of activism. When one person does something, others are encouraged to join in.
#8. “I for one believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what confronts them and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program, and when the people create a program, you get action.” – Malcolm X
Malcolm X (1925-1965) was a Civil Rights activist who fought for Black empowerment and human rights. Accused of promoting racism and violence in his day, Malcolm X is now a widely-admired thinker and icon of the Civil Rights Movement. In the quote above, he describes what activists need: education. When people are educated on what they’re facing and what causes their oppression, they can respond.
#9. “Many of us didn’t choose to become activists. We were activated. We could not stand to sit on the sidelines while our people were brutalized so needlessly. At some point, we choose to accept police violence, or we don’t. Where will you stand?”
Cori Bush is a US representative for Missouri, nurse, pastor, and activist. She was featured in the 2019 documentary “Knock Down the House,” which showed her defeating a 10-term incumbent to become the Democratic nominee. She first became politically active during the 2014 protests in Ferguson, which were a response to the murder of Michael Brown. In the quote above, which is a Tweet published in 2020, Bush expresses a sentiment many activists feel; they didn’t choose to be activists. They were compelled. They saw injustice and had to act. Eventually, everyone will have to make a choice.
#10. “…We are living in times that will demand courage. When people ask me how do I draw hope, how do I stay encouraged, how do I continue to show up? The answer is that I look back. I look back and I look at how my existence here today is owed entirely to the courage of people who came before me. And so, what do I owe myself in that moment and to those who come after me? To exercise courage in this moment.” – Bree Newsome Bass
Bree Newsome Bass is an American filmmaker, speaker, musician, and activist from North Carolina. She came to international attention when in 2015, she climbed a flagpole and took down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds. The publicity generated from her act and arrest forced state officials to officially remove the flag. The quote above comes from Bass’ 2020 keynote speech at the Wesleyan University celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. She emphasizes the importance of courage, which she draws from looking at courageous people from the past.
#11. “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”- Angela Davis
Angela Davis is an American academic, author, and activist. In 1970, she was arrested and spent a year in jail while being prosecuted for three capital felonies. Following a highly-publicized trial and international movement to free her, she was acquitted of all charges. The Serenity Prayer begins with “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” but Angela Davis turns that on its head. Rather than acceptance, she advocates for change.
#12. “Waiting until everything looks feasible is too long to wait.”- Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit is an award-winning American writer whose work has appeared in places like Harper’s Magazine, The Guardian, and The New Yorker. She’s also the author of numerous books, including Hope in the Dark, which is where the above quote comes from. Solnit’s words challenge the excuse many give when considering whether or not to act in the face of injustice. Progress often feels impossible, but if we wait until all the pieces fall together, it’ll be too late.
#13. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its mighty waters.” – Frederick Douglas
Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) was an American writer, abolitionist, and statesman. After escaping from slavery, he wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and fought for the end of of slavery. After the Civil War, Douglass continued his human rights activism. The quote above comes from the 1857 address “No Progress Without Struggle.” It acknowledges the reality that progress and change are hard won. It isn’t enough to talk about freedom; we must all work for it.
#14. “Every crisis, actual or impending, needs to be viewed as an opportunity to bring about profound changes in our society. Going beyond protest organizing, visionary organizing begins by creating images and stories of the future that help us imagine and create alternatives to the existing system.”―Grace Lee Boggs
Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015) was a Chinese-American social activist, feminist, and author. With her husband James Boggs, she was politically active for decades, participating in the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power movement, and community activism. The quote above, which comes from the 2011 book The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, highlights the importance of “visionary organizing” and imagining a new, better world.
#15. “I’m convinced of this: Good done anywhere is good done everywhere. For a change, start by speaking to people rather than walking by them like they’re stones that don’t matter. As long as you’re breathing, it’s never too late to do some good.”- Dr. Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was an American poet, memoirist, and activist. She is known for books like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and poems such as “Still I Rise.” The quote above describes a simple, everyday approach to activism: talk to people like they matter. In Angelou’s mind, that little bit of good is expansive and makes the world a better place.