We Will Remember Not the Words of Our Enemies, But the Silence of Our Friends

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

This quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr. can be found all over the internet, especially in posts and books about justice, civil rights, bullying, domestic violence, and mourning. What makes the quotation so popular is that everyone can relate to it to its meaning: what hurts the most are not malicious remarks from enemies — people we really don’t care about (“sticks and stones…”); but rather, what hurts the most is when friends, people you truly care about, say nothing to support you, to protect you, to speak up for you, or to provide comfort during difficult times in your life. King’s quotation, of course, is a variation on a familiar theme — recall that age-old adage, “Hard times will always reveal true friends.”

Like many quotations that abound on the internet, you will rarely find a full attribution for this quotation. We know Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote and said this, but where can it be found? The source for this famous quotation is drawn from the “Steeler Lecture,” one of five lectures that King delivered in November 1967 at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama for the Massey Lecture Series of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The lectures were soon published in a collection titled Conscience for Change. A year later, the book was republished under a new title, The Trumpet of Conscience.

The conflict, highlighted in King’s quotation, between speaking out (action) vs. not speaking out (inaction) goes all the way back to the Bible, specifically the Parable of the Good Samaritan found in the New Testament. The well-known parable evokes a simple, but very important question: if we went on a walk, how would we respond to a lone traveler lying by the side of the road — beaten, stripped of his clothing, deprived of food and water, and left to die? The parable presents us with two contrasting individuals: the bystander and the Good Samaritan. The bystander represents inaction: he sees a human in crisis and simply walks by, averting his eyes of clear pain and suffering, and ignores his obligation to help his fellow man. On the other hand, the Good Samaritan, representing action, shows compassion and helps the injured man, regardless of the victim’s beliefs and circumstances.

King’s observation also has some relation to one of the most famous quotations of modern times: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” The quotation is often attributed to Edmund Burke, an Irish statesman and philosopher; however, scholars who have carefully reviewed all of his writings have determined that he never wrote that. Nevertheless, at the heart of that quotation is, once again, the conflict of action vs. inaction. Expressed another way it states: if good people choose to be bystanders and not speak out or take action, then bad people will commit acts of evil. Recall another old adage: silence implies consent.

Another reason that King’s quotations about friends is important is because in the Golden Age of Social Media, the concept of friendship, which is elastic to begin with, has been stretched to the breaking point. Not every follower, “Facebook friend, or “digital” friend is actually a true friend — not even close. So in a time of crisis, those “digital” friends will not show support in a meaningful way. In this respect, King is not introducing an original concept, but rather he is building on a well-traveled road of proverbial wisdom. Here, for example, are just a few very popular proverbs (lacking any specific attribution) that focus on true friendship:

You don’t need a lot of friends, just the right ones.

As we grow older, we don’t lose friends, we just learn who the real ones are.

Good friends are hard to find, harder to leave, and impossible to forget.

True friends are friends for life.

True friends don’t talk bad about you.

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