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15 Inspiring Quotes for Black History Month

In the United States, Black History Month is recognized every February. Its goal is to celebrate the history and heritage of Black Americans. Historian Carter G. Woodson, who is known as the “father of Black history,” first promoted a week-long celebration in 1926. By the late 1960s, the week expanded into a month, and in 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month. This doesn’t mean Black history should only be celebrated one month of the year, but it’s a good opportunity to learn more about people and stories that may not be as well-known. Black History Month is also celebrated in Canada in February. The UK and Ireland celebrate in October. Here are 15 inspiring quotes that are perfect for Black History Month and every other time of the year:

“Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.” – John Lewis

John Lewis (1940-2020) was a prominent civil rights activist and congressman. During the Civil Rights Movement, he organized sit-ins and participated in the Freedom Rides of 1961, which brought Black and white activists together on bus trips into the segregated South. Lewis was beaten, arrested and harassed for his activism. During his long career as a congressman representing Georgia, he worked for civil rights, equality and human rights.

“There are two things I’ve got a right to, and these are, Death or Liberty – one or the other I mean to have. No one will take me back alive; I shall fight for my liberty, and when the time has come for me to go, the Lord will let them, kill me.” – Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) was born into slavery, but after escaping, she returned to Maryland to guide other enslaved people to freedom. She directly helped around 70 people, while her advice no doubt helped many others escape. As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, which was a network of safe houses and activists who helped enslaved people out of the Southern states, Tubman navigated dangerous terrain. She also served in the Union Army and established a home for the elderly.

“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968) was a Baptist minister and leader of the Civil Rights Movement. He played a pivotal role in events like the March on Washington, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Selma March. Through non-violent protests, he fought for racial equality, economic justice and peace. The quote above, which comes from a speech given during the March for Integrated Schools in 1959, calls on people to commit to equality and justice like it’s their job.

“Be as bold as the first man or woman to eat an oyster.” – Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) was the first Black woman in Congress and the first woman and African-American to pursue the nomination for US president from one of the two major parties. During her seven terms as a house representative, Chisholm was famous for her determination and fearlessness. She fought for racial and gender equality, economic justice and an end to the Vietnam War. Considering how many barriers Chisholm broke, she fully lived out the quote above.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a writer and intellectual famous for his insights on race and racism in America. He published many works, including Go Tell it On the Mountain, The Fire Next Time and Giovanni’s Room. While he died fairly young, Baldwin’s words continue to inspire and empower writers and activists to this day. His works are frequently read and recommended by groups fighting for racial equality and LGBTQ+ rights.

“Racism separates, but it never liberates. Hatred generates fear, and fear once given a foothold binds, consumes, and imprisons. Nothing is gained from prejudice. No one benefits from racism.” – Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) was a lawyer, civil rights activist and the Supreme Court’s first Black member. As a lawyer in the 1940s and ‘50s, he argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court and won 29. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, one of his most famous cases, made racial segregation unconstitutional. While the state argued that schools could be separate but equal, that was not the case. As the quote above declares, racism can only separate, it never liberates.

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“Eastward and westward storms are breaking, great, ugly whirlwinds of hatred and blood and cruelty. I will not believe them inevitable. I will not believe that all that was must be, that all the shameful drama of the past must be done again today before the sunlight sweeps the silver seas.” – W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was a sociologist, historian, author and activist. He was involved in the establishment of the NAACP and editor of its magazine for 24 years. His essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk, is considered one of the most important pieces of Black literature. The quote above comes from the essay, “The Souls of White Folk,” which examines the roots of American racism. It acknowledges that while hatred and cruelty are always on the horizon, we don’t have to accept them as inevitable. The worst parts of the past don’t have to repeat themselves.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”- Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was a human rights activist and the first Black president of South Africa. Before his time as president, he was a lawyer who participated in anti-apartheid activism, which made him a target of the state. For a time, he gave up on nonviolent protests and engaged in more militant tactics. In 1964, he was sentenced to life in jail. In 1990, he was released and led negotiations to end apartheid. Four years later, he won the first presidential election in South Africa. Mandela was no stranger to fear, and as his quote says, being brave is about conquering fear.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” – Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was an abolitionist, speaker and author. He is best known for his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and his activism for abolition and women’s rights. After the Civil War ended slavery, Douglass continued to work for human rights and social justice. As a man who freed himself from slavery and fought for others, he understood how progress is only won through struggle.

“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” – Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1901-1967) was a writer famous during the Harlem Renaissance, a time when African-American music, dance, art, theater, literature and politics flourished, especially in Harlem, New York City. Hughes wrote novels, plays, short stories and poetry inspired by jazz. His work explored all parts of the Black experience in America, including love and suffering. The quote above, which is from the poem “Dreams,” emphasizes the importance of dreams for a beautiful, fulfilled life.

“You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” – Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers (1925-1963) was a civil rights activist who first began his work after being turned away from an election at gunpoint. He fought for integration and civil rights as the NAACP’s first field officer in Mississippi. White supremacists targeted him, and in 1963, Evers was shot and killed. 30 years later, his murderer was finally found guilty. Evers’ quote is even more profound given his assassination.

“I had no idea that history was being made. I was just tired of giving up.” – Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks (1913-2005) was a civil rights activist known as “the mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” In 1955, a bus driver told Parks to move from her seat to make room for white passengers, but she refused. Her arrest triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which sparked the Civil Rights movement nationwide. This quote reminds us that when people take a stand for their rights, they don’t know what effect they’ll have on history. Even the smallest actions can have giant consequences.

“Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.” – Dr. Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison (b. 1956) grew up watching Star Trek and dreaming of going to space. At the time, no women had ever gone to space, but Jamison studied hard and got a scholarship to Stanford University at 16 years old. She studied engineering and medicine, and in 1986, she was accepted into NASA’s astronaut training program. She became the first Black woman in space. Jemison never let other people tell her what was or wasn’t possible, and she made history.

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” – Alice Walker

Alice Walker (b. 1944) was born in Georgia to sharecroppers. After losing sight in one eye, she focused on writing and academics. After graduating college, she was involved in the Civil Rights Movement while continuing her career as a writer and editor. In 1982, she published her most famous novel, The Color Purple, which won a Pulitzer Prize. In the struggle for human rights and equality, never forget that we all have the power to stand up for what’s right. As soon as we believe we don’t, injustice wins.

“Don’t let anything stop you. There will be times when you’ll be disappointed, but you can’t stop.” – Dr. Sadie T. M. Alexander 

Sadie Alexander (1898-1989) was the first Black woman to be admitted to the Pennsylvania bar, the first Black woman in the US to earn a Ph.D. in economics and the first Black woman to earn both a doctorate and J.D. She spent her career fighting for equality and civil rights. As a lawyer, she took on cases involving racial discrimination, segregation and economic injustice. In 1947, she served on President Truman’s Committee on Human Rights. As a woman who broke barriers, she faced persistent opposition, but she never let disappointment stop her.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.