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Four African proverbs that speak to Dr. King's legacy

1 Ẹ̀rù ogun kì í ba jagun-jagun

"Fear of battle never afflicts a warrior"

(Yorùbá Proverb)

This proverb speaks to the importance of being bold and fearless in the pursuit of one's goals. In his life and work Dr. King fully embodied the essence of this proverb.

Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement in general are typically discussed as the passive and "safe" alternatives to more radical black figures like Malcolm X and organizations like the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party.

These portrayals do our esteemed ancestor serious injustice. Dr. King and other civil rights activists merely adopted non-violence as a strategy to achieve their goals. This strategy took extreme courage and bravery on the ground. To face the harshest forms of racism head on i.e. the Klu Klux Klan, vicious police dogs, fire hoses, angry mobs etc. took extreme courage and discipline.


2 Kàkà kí àgbò ké, àgbò a kú.

"Rather than cry out, the ram will die"

(Yorùbá Proverb)

This proverb speaks to the importance of being strong, tough and resilient. Just as the ram is the perfect animal to model these characteristics, I believe Dr. King is the perfect historical figure to represent this proverb as well. He didn't fear death and continued to fight for the upliftment of our people in the face of FBI harassment, death threats AND an assassination attempt that nearly took his life.

In his own words:

"You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice."


3 Si bèf te konn fòs yo, majoral pa ta lanse yo.

"If cows knew their strength, they would not be butchered" (Haitian Proverb)

This proverb speaks to the importance of knowing, understanding and living in your own power, specifically your ability to fight against violence and oppression.

Dr. King embodied this proverb because he understood the physical and spiritual power that we possess to fight the oppression we faced and are still facing in this country.

In his own words:

"Whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent"

"Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained."


4 Tekrema mporo da.

"The tongue never rots"

(Akan Proverb)

This proverb speaks to the power of words and the weight that they can hold even beyond the lifetime of the person who uttered them.

One the biggest reasons Dr. King became such a prominent figure

in the Civil Rights movement is because he was a master thinker

and master orator. When he spoke, he spoke with resounding power.

He spoke about racism, capitalism, imperialism, spirituality etc.

with such depth that his words are still being quoted and studied to this day and will likely live on for many many generations.

One of my favorites quotes from Dr. King goes:

"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."

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