38 Controversial Quotes From History’s Most Revered Figures

Published November 12, 2016
Updated January 23, 2018

From John Lennon to Ben Franklin to Mahatma Gandhi, these appallingly controversial quotes will leave you utterly speechless.

Mahatma Gandhi, on black Africans

Controversial Quotes Gandhi
"Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir [a slur for black Africans that is now classified as hate speech and generally considered to be the equivalent of "nigger" in the United States] whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness."

"Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilised—the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals."
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Nikola Tesla, on Jewish people

Controversial Quotes Nikola Tesla
"Never trust a Jew!"Wikimedia Commons

Martin Luther King Jr., on infidelity

Martin Luther King
"In the meantime, since the other person is so near you might study her and see what she does for your husband that you might not be doing. Do you spend too much time with the children and the house and not pay attention to him? Are you careful with your grooming? Do you nag?" — King's advice for a woman who asked him for help because her husband was cheating with a woman who lived nearbyAFP/Getty Images

John Lennon, on his son

Controversial Quotes John Lennon
"I can't stand the way you fucking laugh! Never let me hear your fucking horrible laugh again." — Lennon screaming at his son, Julian, while the latter was a boy and helping his mother make pancakes

"I'm not going to lie to Julian. Ninety percent of the people on this planet, especially in the West, were born out of a bottle of whiskey on a Saturday night, and there was no intent to have children. So 90 percent of us -- that includes everybody -- were accidents...Julian is in the majority, along with me and everybody else. Sean is a planned child, and therein lies the difference." — Lennon, describing the difference between his first son, Julian, and his second son, Sean
-/AFP/Getty Images

George Washington, on Native Americans

George Washington
George WashingtonWikimedia Commons

Salvador Dali, on Hitler

Salvador Dali
"Hitler turned me on in the highest." — Dali stating his admiration for Adolf Hitler-/AFP/GettyImages

Friedrich Nietzsche, on women

Friedrich Nietzsche
"When a woman has scholarly inclinations there is usually something wrong with her sexual organs."Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Lincoln, on racial equality

Abraham Lincoln
“And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”
Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Edison, on women

Thomas Edison
"Direct thought is not an attribute of femininity. In this, woman is now centuries behind man."Wikimedia Commons

Teddy Roosevelt, on eugenics and breeding

Teddy Roosevelt
In 1913, the beloved 26th President whose face appears on Mount Rushmore, wrote in a letter, "I agree with you if you mean, as I suppose you do, that society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind. It is really extraordinary that our people refuse to apply to human beings such elementary knowledge as every successful farmer is obliged to apply to his own stock breeding. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum."Wikimedia Commons

Roald Dahl, on Jewish people

Roald Dahl
"There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity; maybe it's a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn't just pick on them for no reason."Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Seuss, on the Japanese

Dr. Seuss
"But right now, when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: 'Brothers!' It is a rather flabby battle cry. If we want to win, we've got to kill Japs, whether it depresses [anti-war-activist] John Haynes Holmes or not. We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left." — Seuss making racist comments about the Japanese, a stance that also informed his support of America's Japanese internment camps during the 1940s and his anti-Japanese propaganda (pictured)Wikimedia Commons (left), Pinterest (right)

Bob Marley, on consent

Bob Marley
"No, you're my wife and you're supposed to." — Marley forcing himself upon his wife, Rita, in what she described in her 2004 memoir, No Woman No Cry: My Life With Bob Marley, as a rapeWikimedia Commons

The Dalai Lama, on homosexuality

Dalai Lama
"From a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered sexual misconduct." — The Dalai Lama stating that homosexuality is not allowed in Buddhism, while he has also stated the for non-believers, homosexuality is acceptableNeilson Barnard/Getty Images for Syracuse University

Thomas Jefferson, on black people

Thomas Jefferson
"Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior...The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites, has been observed by every one, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life."Wikimedia Commons

Mother Teresa, on poverty

Mother Teresa
"I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people."RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images

Ben Franklin, on Native Americans

Ben Franklin
“If it be the design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for cultivators of the Earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means.”Wikimedia Commons

Kurt Vonnegut, on women

Kurt Vonnegut
“Educating a beautiful woman is like pouring honey into a fine Swiss watch: everything stops.”Wikimedia Commons

John Lennon, on women

John Lennon
"I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically - any woman. I was a hitter."MYCHELE DANIAU/AFP/Getty Images

Aristotle, on women

"The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities; we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness."Wikimedia Commons

Teddy Roosevelt, on the imperialist conquest of Australia

Teddy Roosevelt In Uniform
"The natives [of Australia] were so few in number and of such a low type, that they practically offered no resistance at all, being but little more hindrance than an equal number of ferocious beasts."Wikimedia Commons

Winston Churchill, on race and religion

Winston Churchill
"Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen; all know how to die; but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world."

"I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion."
Wikimedia Commons

John Lennon, on homosexuality

John Lennon As A Young Man
"I think its concept is revolutionary, and I hope it’s for workers and not for tarts and fags." — Lennon discussing his hopes for his then forthcoming single, "Working Class Hero"

"He called me a queer so I battered his bloody ribs in." — Lennon explaining why he engaged in a bar fight that put the other man in the hospital

"I think Mick's a joke, with all that fag dancing, I always did." — Lennon on Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger
Wikimedia Commons

Mahatma Gandhi, on his wife

Gandhi At Spinning Wheel
"I simply cannot bear to look at Ba's face. The expression is often like that on the face of a meek cow and gives one the feeling as a cow occasionally does, that in her own dumb manner she is saying something."Wikimedia Commons

Winston Churchill, on chemical weapons

Winston Churchill Wearing A Hat
"I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes."Wikimedia Commons

Martin Luther King Jr., on domestic abuse

Martin Luther King Delivering A Speech
"I would suggest that you analyze the whole situation and see if there is anything within your personality that arouses this tyrannical response from your husband." — King's advice for a woman who asked him for help because her husband was abusive to her and their kids/AFP/Getty Images

Albert Einstein, written conditions for his wife

Albert Einstein At A Chalkboard

A. You will make sure:
    1. that my clothes and laundry are kept in good order;
    2. that I will receive my three meals regularly in my room;
    3. that my bedroom and study are kept neat, and especially that my desk is left for my use only.

B. You will renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons. Specifically, You will forego:

    1. my sitting at home with you;
    2. my going out or travelling with you.

-/AFP/Getty Images

Winston Churchill, on white supremacy

Winston Churchill Flashing The Victory Sign
"'Keep England White' is a good slogan.”

“I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

"The Aryan stock is bound to triumph."
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

Bob Marley, on infidelity

Bob Marley Singing
"I don't want you to get pregnant every year. So some of that is really just taking the burden off you and your body." — Marley explaining to his wife, Rita, why he regularly impregnated other womenWikimedia Commons

Abraham Lincoln, on blacks and whites living together

Abraham Lincoln Portrait
“There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

“You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffers very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated.”
Wikimedia Commons

Everyone -- even the most revered heroes of history -- has said something they wish they could take back. Whether you've spoken out of line in the heat of the moment or simply put your foot in your mouth, we've all said stupid things we then regret.

But sometimes, we've said something awful and not regretted it at all. Sometimes, we thoroughly intend to say or write something appalling, whether we realize it is indeed appalling or not.

And that is certainly true even of the most beloved icons of government, academia, the arts, and beyond. From John Lennon to Martin Luther King Jr. to Gandhi, these surprisingly ugly and controversial quotes might have you rethinking who your heroes are.

After this look at controversial quotes, check out 21 little-known John Lennon facts and photos that reveal his bizarre, ugly side. Then, read up on 19 startling Gandhi facts and quotes that are much darker than you'd imagine. Finally, check out some of history's most interesting quotes.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.