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Empowering Quotes From 12 Famous Activists

As long as society has existed, so too has the indomitable urge to improve it. While the vision of a better community has certainly changed over the centuries, one thing has remained the same: Human beings crave happiness, freedom, and a fair shot at success. Activism is a direct byproduct of these desires. It’s a response to and catalyst for political and social change, whether that change pertains to equality, the environment, animal rights, technology, or any number of other issues. Indeed, activism has been the driving force behind some of humanity’s most monumental milestones.

Due to its topical nature, we tend to favor current events and causes when we think of activism — climate change, racial equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and so on. But fighting for what’s right is hardly a new idea. The ancient Athenians used theater and visual art as a form of expression and criticism and to advocate for a better society. Almost 3,000 years later, the French revolted against a corrupt monarchy while across the Atlantic, citizens of the fledgling United States rebelled  against England to establish their new country. Since then, plenty of other causes have risen to the forefront of society, including women’s suffrage, racial equality, labor rights, and more.

The face of activism may have evolved over the millennia along with our values, ideals, and capabilities, but our collective passion for making the world a better place has remained the same. We’ve gathered some of the most emboldening quotes from activists of the last century, so that we all may be inspired to fight for the causes we hold dear.

Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.
John Lewis

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John Lewis was a longtime civil rights activist: He was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, and he helped plan the marches from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery in 1965. In 1960, Lewis was arrested at a Nashville diner sit-in, after which he coined his famous term “good, necessary trouble.” For years before his death in July 2020, he repeatedly urged the public to engage in such trouble, including in this tweet from 2018.

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.
Elie Wiesel

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Elie Wiesel was an author, activist, and Holocaust survivor who devoted his life to fighting for individuals and communities persecuted because of their religion, race, or nationality. He put out this call for consistent action while accepting the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize “for being a messenger to mankind: his message is one of peace, atonement, and dignity.”

I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.
Malcolm X

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Malcolm X was a minister and prominent civil rights activist of the 1950s and ’60s. He was assassinated in 1965 while preparing to deliver a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. This quote comes from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in which the activist recounts letters he wrote to friends during his pilgrimage to Mecca.

Pressure is a privilege — it only comes to those who earn it.
Billie Jean King

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Tennis star and gender equality advocate Billie Jean King made sports and feminist history when she defeated fellow tennis player and self-described chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” exhibition match. Despite Riggs’ comments that King wasn’t emotionally or physically capable of beating him, King dominated Riggs in all three games. When speaking of the high-stakes match, King says the pressure she felt and the opportunity to take on Riggs in the name of women’s equality were a privilege.

Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, but your government only when it deserves it.
Mark Twain

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In addition to penning literary classics like Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain was a passionate liberal activist, union supporter, and critical race theorist. This quote comes from a 1901 meeting of the New York City Male Teachers Association, wherein Twain waxed philosophical on the concept of true patriotism, which he insisted includes maintaining a healthy skepticism of the powers that rule over one’s country.

When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.
Malala Yousafzai

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Malala Yousafzai began her career in activism as an outspoken child fighting for girls’ educational rights after the Taliban banned girls from attending school in her home country of Pakistan. She was shot in the head in a failed assassination attempt when she was only 15 years old for defying the Taliban’s orders. Since then, Yousafzai has continued to advocate for young women’s rights to education across the globe.

If we can touch people about wildlife, then they’ll want to save it … Come with me, share it with me, share my wildlife with me — because humans want to save things that they love.
Steve Irwin

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Steve Irwin was the khaki-clad, toothy-grinned “Crocodile Hunter” who introduced many of us to the wonders of exotic wildlife, and his passion for the natural world carried over into his environmental and animal rights activism. In the interview this quote comes from, Irwin explained that he would most like to be remembered for his passion and enthusiasm in regards to preserving, protecting, and honoring wildlife.

Sometimes to do the right thing, you have to break a law. And the key there is in terms of civil disobedience. You have to make sure that what you’re risking, what you’re bringing onto yourself does not serve as a detriment to anyone else.
Edward Snowden

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In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked thousands of classified National Security Agency documents that revealed how the NSA was using surveillance programs to spy on U.S. citizens, the backlash against which forced Snowden to flee to Russia. To this day, Snowden remains a proponent of free speech and government transparency, and he advocated for both in this 2014 interview with NBC’s Brian Williams.

What am I here for if not to be used by good people for good things? … As individuals we don’t have very much, but all together, we have a lot of power.
Jane Fonda

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Jane Fonda is an actress, fitness advocate, and longtime human rights activist who has been at the forefront of civil rights, feminist, LGBTQ+, and environmental movements since the 1960s. This quote comes from Fonda’s response to a reporter’s question about whether she felt the gay rights movement was “using” her. Fonda, who was attending an LGBTQ+ rights rally at the time, began her answer by saying, “I hope they use me.”

Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up, and change is coming whether you like it or not.
Greta Thunberg

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Greta Thunberg solidified her status as the face of the modern climate change revolution in 2018, when she began her worldwide climate school strike movement, “Fridays for Future." In an emotional, impassioned address at the U.N. Climate Action Summit the following year, a then-16-year-old Thunberg fiercely called out world leaders for their inaction in the face of species-threatening climate change.

If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.
Shirley Chisholm

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Shirley Chisholm was a Brooklyn-born human rights activist and seven-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1969 to 1983. She was the first Black woman in Congress and the first female and Black politician to seek a nomination for the U.S. presidency. As a trailblazing WOC politician, Chisholm advocated for self-starting activism and creating spaces for our ideas to be heard in situations where those spaces don’t yet exist.

We can’t just hope for a brighter day, we have to work for a brighter day. Love too often gets buried in a world of hurt and fear.
Dolly Parton

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Award-winning singer-songwriter Dolly Parton has stood by this ethos of working for a brighter day throughout her career, using her cultural and financial platform to fund scholarships, wildlife preserves, educational programs, disaster relief, and more, thus cementing her as a champion for human rights. The singer shared this sentiment in a tweet on her 75th birthday, using her birthday wish to call for widespread kindness.

Featured image credit: Sean Gallup/ Getty Images News via Getty Images

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About the Author
Melanie Davis-McAfee
M. Davis-McAfee is a freelance writer, musician, and devoted cat mom of three living in southwest Kentucky.
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Fill in the blank: "___ consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” - Pope John Paul II

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