Fact Check

Did MLK Say 'Darkness Cannot Drive Out Darkness; Only Light Can Do That'?

The late Rev. King is frequently misquoted on the internet, and, as always, we're here to clear it up.

Published Jan 21, 2024

 ( Getty Images)
Image Via Getty Images
Claim:
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

The late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., known for his eloquence and ability to mobilize the masses throughout the Civil Rights era, is often incorrectly credited for quotes that he never said. One of the most famous lines attributed to King is typically quoted as "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."

In January 2024, this quote was even posted on the official X (formerly Twitter) page of the State of Israel.

These words were indeed written by King. However, for more than a decade now, there has been confusion as to the precise wording of the quote. In 2011, following the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, a version of the quote went viral on the internet. It stated: "I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."

Given that if followed the controversial killing of bin Laden, the quote spread across the internet at an impressive reach, especially for the time. Penn Jillette, a famous magician and outspoken libertarian, tweeted the quote to his 1.6 million Facebook followers, and it only continued to go viral from there.

Questions about whether the quote was presented accurately were picked up by The Atlantic, NPR, and other news outlets. They found the wording was correct except for the very first sentence, which was not found in King's speeches or writings: "I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy."

As it turns out, however, Jillette was only a perpetuator – not the originator – of the erroneous version of the quote. Before Jillette shared it, Facebook user Jessica Dovey quoted the King passage correctly on her status, but prefaced it with a sentence expressing her own personal thoughts: "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." She distinguished her own thoughts from King's via an opening quotation mark, which was dropped somewhere along the line as it picked up internet traction.

(Image via The Atlantic)

The complete quote by King, which can be found in his 1963 book "Strength to Love," read as follows:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says “Love your enemies,” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies—or else? The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.

Commenters on Israel's X post quoting King were quick to point to a clarification provided by Bernice King, MLK's youngest daughter, on Oct. 31, 2023, in regard to her father's stance on Israel.

We've previously written on other rumors related to King, including whether the FBI sent a letter telling him to kill himself and whether King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, paid the hospital bill for actress Julia Robert's birth.

Sources

Grant, Drew. ‘Penn Jillette Explains the Fake Martin Luther King Jr.: “I Made a Mistake”’. Salon, 3 May 2011, https://www.salon.com/2011/05/03/fake_mlj_quote_osama_death/.

‘Https://Twitter.Com/BerniceKing/Status/1719524029600612666’. X (Formerly Twitter), https://twitter.com/BerniceKing/status/1719524029600612666. Accessed 17 Jan. 2024.

‘Https://Twitter.Com/Israel/Status/1746912379667890196’. X (Formerly Twitter), https://twitter.com/Israel/status/1746912379667890196. Accessed 17 Jan. 2024.

Jr, Martin Luther King. Strength to Love. Beacon Press, 2019.

‘Loving Your Enemies,’ Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church | The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-enemies-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church. Accessed 17 Jan. 2024.

McArdle, Megan. ‘Anatomy of a Fake Quotation’. The Atlantic, 3 May 2011, https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/05/anatomy-of-a-fake-quotation/238257/.

Peralta, Eyder. ‘As The Bin Laden Story Raced Online, A Tale Of Two Misattributed Quotes’. NPR, 3 May 2011. NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2011/05/04/135965263/as-the-bin-laden-story-raced-online-a-tale-of-two-misattributed-quotes.

‘5 Martin Luther King, Jr. Quotes People Think He Said but Actually Didn’t’. Yahoo News, 17 Jan. 2016, http://news.yahoo.com/5-martin-luther-king-jr-121303266.html.

Taija PerryCook is a Seattle-based journalist who previously worked for the PNW news site Crosscut and the Jordan Times in Amman.