“Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’. Play it real pretty”, are said to be the last words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, just before he stepped out onto a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee where a gunman shot him a single time, ending his life half a century ago.

That gunshot over 50 years ago put an end to the life of a man who is one of the most revered figures in American history — not to mention one of the most quotable individuals with a persistent relevance to the condition of the country and its people. On Monday, the nation will celebrate his life and his birthday for Martin Luther King Jr Day, which occurs each year on the third Monday of January even though his actual birthday was on the 15th.

Before King made that plea for the sounds of beauty to Ben Branch, a musician scheduled to play at a planned event that evening in Memphis, he was known for using his words to inspire a generation to peaceful action in the fight for civil rights.

Here is the late reverend, in his own words.

  • “I have decided to stick with love. hate is too great a burden to bear”
  • “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty we are free at last.”
  • “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”