Life’s Most Persistent and Urgent Question Is, “What Are You Doing for Others?”

Martin Luther King Jr.? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A speech by the civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. included a section about the importance of altruism versus selfishness; he posed the following question:

What are you doing for others?

Would you please help me to locate this quotation?

Quote Investigator: The 1963 collection “Strength to Love” by Martin Luther King Jr. included a sermon titled “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” which contained the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

In a sense every day is judgment day, and we, through our deeds and words, our silence and speech, are constantly writing in the Book of Life.

Light has come into the world, and every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1964 “A Martin Luther King Treasury” was published and it also included the sermon “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” which contained a passage that matched to one given previously. 2

In December 1968 “The Ottawa Journal” of Ottawa, Ontario described a holiday card that featured an instance of the quotation: 3

The Christmas Card of the Primate of the Anglican Church, and Mrs. Howard Clark, presented a message of poignant significance not only for Christmas but on the eve of the New Year. It offered these words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“Light has come into the world, and every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”

In 1989 an advertisement for a Winston Salem, North Carolina newspaper for an office furnishing company included an instance: 4

“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgement. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?”

In 1993 the quotation collection “My Soul Looks Back, ‘Less I Forget” included an excerpt of the quotation together with a citation pointing to the 1963 book: 5

Light has come into the world, and every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., Strength to Love, 1963

In conclusion, this quotation appeared in a collection of sermons and essays authored by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963.

Image Notes: Martin Luther King, Jr. at Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. circa August 1963 from U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service via Wikimedia Commons. One poseable figure helping another figure from succo at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Blair L. M. Kelley and Joshua Joy-Brindle whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1963, Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr., Sermon: Three Dimensions of a Complete Life, Start Page 67, Quote Page 72, Published by Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1964, A Martin Luther King Treasury by Martin Luther King Jr., Sermon: Three Dimensions of a Complete Life, Start Page 198, Quote Page 202, Published Educational Heritage, Yonkers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1968 December 31, The Ottawa Journal, ‘What are You Doing For Others?’, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1989 January 12, Winston-Salem Chronicle, (Advertisement for Contract Office Furnishings), Quote Page D9, Column 2, Winston Salem, North Carolina. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1993, My Soul Looks Back, ‘Less I Forget: A Collection of Quotations by People of Color, Edited by Dorothy Winbush Riley, Section: Light, Quote Page 245, HarperCollins Publishers. New York. (Verified on paper)