Every year since 1986, the United States has observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the third Monday in January. The national holiday honors a man who not only was an inspirational civil rights activist during the 1960s, but also one of the greatest orators of our time. King wrote five books during his lifetime, and at one point was estimated to deliver up to 450 speeches a year. Tragically, he was assassinated in 1968.
Many people use Martin Luther King Jr. Day to continue King’s legacy by committing to a day of service within their communities. We can also use this day to reflect on the late reverend’s words and the lessons we can take from them.
While the power and passion behind his words are still felt decades later, some of the meanings behind the words he used in those books, speeches, and interviews have changed over time.
Here are nine words that were used in some of King’s most impassioned speeches, books, and interviews, what he meant when he used them back then, and how they are still used today.
We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.
—In My Own Words, a collection of King’s sermons, speeches, and writings selected by his widow, Coretta Scott King
When he was talking about finite disappointment, King was talking about being let down to a certain degree. While he accepted that there would always be disappointments during the fight for civil rights for all, he wanted to remain hopeful that there could still be change. And he encouraged his followers to do the same.
The word finite is still mostly used to describe limitations. You can say it when describing your finite patience, meaning that you can only be patient for so long before getting frustrated. Or, you can use it the way that Greta Thunberg and her fellow climate activists do, when discussing Earth’s finite resources. However you use it, make sure that, like King, you’re using it to describe something with limitations.
We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
—Western Michigan University, December 1963
Perish means “to die, suffer physical or spiritual destruction, or to disappear.” When King spoke of perishing together as fools, he meant that those who could not find a way to live, love, and work with one another would be doomed to die unhappily together as a result.
These days, you are more likely to see the word associated with foods known as perishables, which are foods that are subject to decay (as opposed to canned goods, which are not). However it can still be used to describe a tragedy, as in news reports.
Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.
—Nobel Lecture, University of Oslo, December 1964
Monologue can mean a lot of different things. In entertainment, it is a speech performed by a single actor (sometimes known as a soliloquy, depending on the delivery). In a conversation, it is when there is a prolonged discourse that is handled by a sole speaker, usually indicating a monopolization of the conversation. In King’s speech, it has more to do with a one-sided conversation without compromise or compassion, where violence keeps us separated instead of bringing us together.
Today, it most commonly references a type of speech given by a character in a story (like the bad guy revealing his plans), or a performance given by a late night host at the top of the show. (“Did you catch John Oliver’s monologue last night? Dude killed it.”)
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
—”I Have a Dream” speech, Lincoln Memorial, August 1963
In this context, King used content to describe what was contained within a person’s character, or the things that made them who they were, instead of their race. Today, we would be more likely to say contents, which means “the things that are contained or held within an object,” instead of the singular.
When the word content is used today, it can mean what can be found on the internet or other entertainment media. As in, “With all of these streaming services today, there is just too much content to keep up with it all.”
I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. … Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.
—”Where Do We Go From Here?” speech, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, August 1967
Meandering means “moving forward by means of a winding or indirect course,” or “to ramble or wander without direction.” When King told the members of the leadership conference about the “places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment,” he was speaking figuratively of the journey to equality, not of a physical path that he expected the attendees to traverse.
The word meandering is still commonly used to describe pace, and the approach to a journey, but more often than not it is a physical journey. A meandering journey might have twists and turns along the route or move at a slower pace. You can also have a conversation that meanders, or seems to go on without much direction.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
—letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963
Injustice means “the act of being unjust, violating the rights of others,” or “unfair action or treatment” and references inequity across the board. When King spoke of injustice, he was specifically talking about the systemic racism that Black people face across the country.
Injustice still describes the variety of inequalities that face our country today. It can be found in a staggering numbers of posts on social media when used to describe political, social, and economical movements. Hashtags like #metoo and #blacklivesmatter are often used online in conjunction with modern stories of injustice.
Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness.
—”The Most Durable Power” speech, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, November 1956
Succumb means “to yield, often to a superior force.” In this instance, that force is bitterness, and King was talking about the pressure or desire to become hardened by all that has happened in the quest for equality.
It is still commonly used to describe giving in. Although, more often than not you can see it used to describe succumbing to things like illness or to lesser temptations … like reality television.
Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
—Strength to Love, 1963
Conscientious means “to be ruled or controlled by your conscience.” In Strength to Love, King used it to describe people making decisions based on existing bias and prejudice, sort of the bad side of your conscience.
Back in the ’60s, you would be more likely to find the word used alongside ideals like those of the “conscientious objectors” of the Vietnam War. These days we use it a lot to talk about purchasing power. Being a conscientious shopper allows us to use our wallets to make a statement by not spending money at companies whose business practices or ideals we do not agree with.
There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.
—”A Proper Sense of Priorities” speech, Washington D.C., February 1968
Politic means to be “tactful, shrewd, prudent, or diplomatic in political matters.” When King said it, he was talking about making statements that came from the heart, not those that would appease the masses or grant him favor in the eyes of others. He was telling people that sometimes you just had to do what was right, no matter what others thought about it, specifically asking politicians to look past their base and make laws that would deliver equality to all men and women.
In today’s tense political climate, almost every statement can be seen as political. Due to the nature of social media, almost everything that anyone has said in the past seven years can be pulled up and shared online, which can call into question the politic capacity of some of today’s legislators. Here, politic takes on a whole new life. Type carefully.