I have a predilection for checking the sources of quotes. Why? Often quotes are taken out of context and retrieving that context can make the quote all the more meaningful or give pause if the quote is being used out of context.
The quote that was shared with me today was attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. and reads: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
I believe this quote is a loose rewrite of three lines King gave in a speech. You can watch a snippet of the speech on YouTube. If the titles in the video are accurate, the speech was made on March 8, 1965 at Brown Chapel, part of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, in Selma, Alabama.
Deep down in our non-violent creed is the conviction that some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36-years-old, as I happen to be, and some great truth stands before the door of his life — some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. He’s afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, he may go on and live until he’s 80. But he’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80, and the cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. He died. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.
So we’re going to stand up right here amid horses. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama, amid the billy-clubs. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama amid police dogs, if they have them. We’re going to stand up amid tear gas! We’re going to stand up amid anything that they can muster up, letting the world know that we are determined to be free!”
The portion in bold text above is what I believe created the foundation for the rewrite. I come to that conclusion based on the following assumptions. The first is the change that was made to the beginning of the sentence. “A man dies” becomes “Our lives begin to end…”. A rewrite that may have been made to remove gender from the quote and reduce its punch.
The middle of the rewrite, “…the day we become silent…” is likely a rephrasing of King’s reprise “when he refuses to [stand up]/[take a stand]”.
And the ending of the rewrite “…about things that matter” is likely an amalgamation of the three sentiments expressed by King that “a man dies when he refuses to”:
- “…stand up for that which is right.”
- “…stand up for justice.”
- “…take a stand for that which is true.”
One can easily combine those three sentiments into the bucket of “things that matter”.
So from a speech that encouraged listeners to stand up for justice and truth comes the quote attributed to King: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”