Quotations From the Freedom Movement

From the Forerunners
From Freedom Movement Activists

From the Forerunners
(ordered chronologically)

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-1960s did not sponteneouasly spring into existence. It was built on all that went before and shaped by human rights strugles going back to the distant beginings of history.

Amos 5:24 (750 BCE)

Let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.


Isaiah 1:17 (740 BCE-700 BCE)

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression;


Rabbi Hillel (110 BCE-10 CE)

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?


Rabbi Tarfon (circa 70 CE-135 CE)

You are not called upon to complete the work [of healing the world], but neither are you free to evade it.


Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.


Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.


Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Do you want to know who you are? Don't ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.


Frederick Douglas (1818-1895)

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 up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will... men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get.


Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)

You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no results.


Wisdom of the Elders

Where the broom don't sweep, the dirt don't move.


From Freedom Movement Activists
(ordered alphabetically by author)


A complaint is not a demand.

If you don't like the history they're teaching you in school, go out and make some of your own. — Unknown student activist


Septima Poinsette Clark

The greatest evil in our country today is...ignorance...We need to be taught to study rather than to believe.


Charles (Charley) Cobb

Simply put: because nonviolence worked so well as a tactic for effecting change and was demonstrably improving their lives, some black people chose to use weapons to defend the nonviolent Freedom Movement.

Courtland Cox

The vote is necessary, but insufficient.


James Forman

People are remembered more by what they do than by what they say.

[To Bernice Reagon] I remember seeing you lift your beautiful black head, stand squarely on your feet, your lips trembling as the melodious words 'Over my head, I see freedom in the air' came forth with an urgency and a pain that brought out a sense of intense renewal and commitment of liberation. And when the call came to protest the jailings, you were up front. You led the line. Your feet hit the dirty pavement with a sureness of direction. You walked proudly onward singing 'this little light of mine, 'and the people echoed, 'shine, shine, shine.'

Bruce Hartford

"In real life, "leaderlessness" simply allows the loudest voices, the most charismatic, the most manipulative, and the most threatening, to dominate and intimidate everyone else — with no accountability at all.

Junebug Jabbo Jones (mythical SNCC folk-character)

Mr. Say ain't nothin'. Mr. Do is the man


Martin Luther King

[From Address to Montgomery Bus Boycott Mass Meeting, Holt Street Baptist Church, December 12, 1955]
We are here also because of our love for democracy because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.

[From Give Us the Ballot, 1957]

There is a dire need today for a liberalism which is truly liberal. What we are witnessing today in so many northern communities is a sort of quasi- liberalism which is based on the principle of looking sympathetically at all sides. It is a liberalism so bent on seeing all sides, that it fails to become committed to either side. It is a liberalism that is so objectively analytical that it is not subjectively committed. It is a liberalism which is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm.

In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

The time is always right to do what is right.

Nobody can do everything, but if everyone does something everything will get done.

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

Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper.

Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe—' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic—' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right—' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but because conscience tells one it is right.

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.

Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

No person has the right to rain on your dreams.

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.

[From Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, 1967]

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: This is not just. It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: This is not just. The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

[From Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967]

Why are there forty million poor people in America — And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, Who owns the oil — You begin to ask the question, Who owns the iron ore — You begin to ask the question, Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that's two-thirds water — 

The problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

[From The Trumpet of Conscience, 1968]

The dispossessed of this nation -- the poor, both white and Negro -- live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty (CBC lecture shortly before his assassination, reprinted in The Trumpet of Conscience, Beacon Press).


Mary King

[Re SNCC] We believed that ideas should come from action, not from ideology. We had a stern insistence that our conceptualization, our thinking, our framework, should grow from engagement with the people that we were working with rather than any doctrine or any ready-made philosophy. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer] believed that freedom is expressed in the willingness to assume responsibility and he believed that freedom without responsible action is not freedom.


Bernard Lafayette

If you want to know how to organize people, what you do is ask them to teach you, and they will teach you how to organize them and to educate them.


John Lewis

Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.

Children holding hands, walking with the wind. That is America to me — not just the movement for civil rights, but the endless struggle to respond with decency, dignity, and a sense of brotherhood to all the challenges that face us as a nation, as a whole.

By the force of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of God and democracy.

You cannot be afraid to speak up and speak out for what you believe. You have to have courage, raw courage.

Our revolt was as much against the traditional black leadership structure as it was against segregation and discrimination.


Joann Christian Mants

When one person got involved, it took everybody else along. I went to jail first, but my entire family soon joined the Movement. One time, Faith & I ended up at home w all the babies from two households, because the mamas & the other older sisters were in jail. In the morning we had to plait everybody's hair & feed them — it was a mess! We had all the babies except Peaches Gaines, who was in jail with her mother & my mother. Peaches was jailed because she had not obeyed an officer. She was about two. Her bond was set at, I believe, $125.00 [equal to about $1,000 in 2020].


Chuck McDew

We knew we were going to change the face of America within five years or we'd be dead or crazy. Man we just plain jumped off a cliff blind-folded and we learned to fly on the way down. Ella Baker provided our metaphorical wings.

Militancy and wisdom must not become enemies. Spontaneous expressions of despair are no substitute for disciplined political movements for social justice. The psychological dynamic which manifests itself in apathy or sporadic outbursts of rage are both the products of oppression.

If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there, so first either get a map or draw one of your own.

The most important stories from the past are often forgotten and when we forget that from obscure origins can emerge individuals with the power to change the world.

[To students] You are important not because of who you are in this world. You are important for who you can become.

Silence is the face of evil; to not act is to act.

Whatsoever is morally wrong must not and should not be treated or excused as politically right.

Whites who stood firm with us were the biblical righteous among the nations.

The struggle for black equality the sit-ins have inspired was first and foremost to build a new image of ourselves in our own minds.

The role of the Civil Rights Movement is to promote a full-scale social revolution in the U.S. by activating people who feel freedom as a passion in their lives and be willing to make it more than an abstract concept.

Man we just plain jumped off a cliff blind-folded and we learned to fly on the way down. Ella Baker provided our metaphorical wings.


Anne Moody

But courage was growing in me too. Little by little it was getting harder and harder for me not to speak out.


Diane Nash

Oppression always requires the participation of the oppressed and the role of the oppressed is to withdraw cooperation.


Rosa Parks

[Regarding the popular myth that she refused to give up her seat on the segregated bus because she was tired after a long day of work.]
People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.


Bernice Johnson Reagon

In our culture, anything you do disappears the minute you stop doing it. And freedom is like that. People think you are born into freedom. The only freedom you have is the freedom you're exercising. And sitting down — thinking it's gonna be there when you need it — is gonna give you a big surprise.


Bayard Rustin

Most Americans are more interested in order than in law, more interested in law than in justice.

History is not an accident, it is a choice.

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