Rare MLK speech on civil disobedience

Avi sez, "This mp3 of the rarely heard “But If Not” speech by MLK is crucial to grasp his soaring moral vision and deep intimacy with the Bible. Essential listening for our times. The following quote from the speech does it for me (speech begins at 32:32 into the track):"
I say to you, this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live.

You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be, and one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid.

You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab or shoot or bomb your house. So you refuse to take a stand.

Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at ninety.

And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.

You died when you refused to stand up for right.

You died when you refused to stand up for truth.

You died when you refused to stand up for justice.”

“But If Not”: Dr. Martin Luther King Gives a Sermon On Civil Disobedience in a Rare Recording, Direct link to MP3 (Thanks, Avi!)

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  1. i guess i’m fit to live, but i could totally envision a cold logical rationalist who simply observes a world and maintains complete relativism and i wouldn’t feel comfortable making claims on whether or not i think that person should be alive or not.

  2. Civilization exists basically because people do not do this. Imagine if everyone refused to submit to anything they considered wrong, untrue, or unjust, and bear in mind that there are many different versions of what true, right, and just are.

    It would mean that King’s opponents should have fought to the death to oppose him and the federal government. Perhaps better they accepted what they may still have considered an injustice?

  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came

    First they came for the Communists,
    – but I was not a communist so I did not speak out.
    Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists,
    – but I was neither, so I did not speak out.
    Then they came for the Jews,
    – but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out.
    And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.

  4. #7 Cicada:

    It would mean that King’s opponents should have fought to the death to oppose him and the federal government. Perhaps better they accepted what they may still have considered an injustice?

    Well, some of them fought to some of our deaths, including King’s, but most of them knew; they knew segregation based on race was wrong; in their hearts the bigots knew. They just couldn’t get away with it any longer. They knew better.

  5. “- but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out.
    And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”

    well thats a pretty short list i’d say that the mormons, trekkies, furries, skateboarders, astronauts, feminists, brown coats, and hippies would still be around…

    but would they speak out?

  6. #7, I think you have that backwards. We are civilized only because people of good conscience sometimes stand up and say “No”.

  7. @11 Consider, though, what happens if everyone presumed their consciences were good, and refused to back down.

  8. “…or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab or shoot or bomb your house.”

    Please don’t stab my house. :(

  9. #7 cicada:

    imagine if everyone refused to submit to anything they considered wrong, untrue, or unjust, and bear in mind that there are many different versions of what true, right, and just are.

    He didn’t say that. He said that if you have never found something so dear and precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. (emphasis mine, obviously).

    The bigots who opposed him and killed him may have had cause to follow his words in some other area of their lives, but they did not find it in the cause of bigotry. This shows not that they are cowards (though you could find many other reasons to call them that), or that they are truly dead (though many now are), but that they are liars, claiming their cause is worthwhile when they know it is not.

    Many ordinary people do find a cause to die for. For the vast majority of us it’s our wives, our husbands, our children. For some there are many causes they would die for.

  10. @ #15, Cory- Then we still have the problem, albeit with fewer cases of deadly conflict. When person A’s cause they’ll die for is mutually incompatible with equally ardent person B’s, is it better for one to just knuckle under, or for there to be a body in the street?

  11. I think the major problem is that too many people DO have causes they would die for. If you don’t believe in an afterlife, then I’d say dieing to further a cause is one of the worst things you could do. How can you continue to help and support the cause if you’re dead? There are exceptions of course (like Dr. King himself), but the vast majority of people who die for a cause do not become martyrs, and really contribute little to the advancement of that cause. We need people around to spread the word, petition, strike down opposing views, and push for change.

    If you get a bunch of people who think their belief is worth dieing for, then you end up with the Middle East terrorist situation.

  12. To Cicada and Uncle Max:

    Your reasonings seem to include the assumption that someone who is willing to die for a cause is also willing to kill for one. Just because someone would sacrifice their own life for something doesn’t mean they have any inclination to sacrifice others.

    Ghandi, for example, was clearly willing to die for his cause and yet he vouched for passive aggresive social resistance. He would not condone violence, he could not condone it. King, too, vouched for peaceful reforms, and did not condone violence in the pursuits of his goals. Both were killed for their actions and neither caused anyone harm in their efforts.

    Fighting for what you believe in to the point of death is courage and bravery. Fighting for what you believe in to the point of killing others is cowardice and wickedness.

    ~D. Walker~

  13. When a football coach psyches up his team with words that inspire them to “give 110%, never give up, go the distance, etc.”, those words aren’t for the opposing team to hear and be inspired by also.

  14. Cory @ 15: “Many ordinary people do find a cause to die for. For the vast majority of us it’s our wives, our husbands, our children. For some there are many causes they would die for.”

    That right there may be the problem for a lot of people. What do you do when there is more than one cause that you would die for, and they conflict with each other? Do you stand up for what you believe is morally right and risk leaving your children without a parent? Do you put protecting your family first and hope someone else will change the world? It’s a difficult question to answer.

  15. There’s no difference in risking your life fighting in a war and risking your life fighting for justice and peace.

  16. @ROB1000
    I disagree wholeheartedly. Are you familiar with Mr. Fish? He’s a political cartoonist, and earlier this month, he wrote this cartoon (which is really just a statement) about the very real difference between waging war and waging peace.

  17. @22, agreed. Often fighting for peace will get you a ticket to prison (see Nelson Mandela) or have your home bombed (see Martin Luther King Jr.). War just gets you killed. Seeking peace will get you, your family, and your associates put on lists, followed, intimidated, incarcerated, tortured, and if you are lucky perhaps, possibly vindicated (but without guarantee). After all, there have to be people to remember who you were and what you believed in.

    Even then, you’ve not lived a privileged life. Meanwhile, those who die for war are more often than not called “heroes”. Despite whether they ever set foot on dry land off a Higgins boat.

    There in lies the difference. Catching hell = communist, not emblem of freedom.

    Catching bullets = protector of freedom, not moving target.

  18. Cicada truthfully spake: Then we still have the problem, albeit with fewer cases of deadly conflict. When person A’s cause they’ll die for is mutually incompatible with equally ardent person B’s, is it better for one to just knuckle under, or for there to be a body in the street?

    It’s far, far better for there to be a body on the street.

    One of my children is black. When she was barely old enough to toddle, I discovered that someone had spray-painted swastikas on the stop signs behind my house, and spray-painted “kill all nigger-lovers” on the sidewalk. This was in an all-white, upper-class neighborhood in a north-east-coast USA college town, not in Alabama or Mississippi.

    I don’t like weapons that leave the hand, I think they lack finesse. But I went and got myself a .45 automatic handgun and learned to use it, and I will gladly murder anybody who tries to burn a cross on my lawn.

    What other solutions can you propose? Hand over my child like Lot’s daughters to the Kluxers when they come calling? Try to fight the noose with a sermon? There will always be people who can’t be stopped without killing them.

    When people “knuckle under”, as you put it, you get Dilbert’s “the most insane person always wins” situation, which guarantees that the most viciously brutal people will determine the shape of culture and the future of society.

    –Charlie

  19. #7 CICADA: “Imagine if everyone refused to submit to anything they considered wrong, untrue, or unjust, and bear in mind that there are many different versions of what true, right, and just are.”

    Actually, this would be wonderful!! I think you’re confusing “refused to submit” with “violently imposing one’s beliefs on someone else.”

    Refusing to submit does not mean fighting someone else to the death. It means allowing other people to live according to their own philosophy, but if they try to violently impose their philosophy on you, you resist, not kill them. King preached nonviolence, which means possibly “dying for” but never “killing for” what you believe in.

    The ‘uncivilized bloodbath’ you envision could only be precipitated by those not following King’s philosophy. You know, like the current purveyors of ‘civilization’ who keep ‘order’ with guns, bombs, and prisons.

  20. My point was – why should those working for peace not be willing to get hurt/imprisoned/killed….

    MLK, ghandi, etc. showed the kind of courage that could be compared to those in battle.

  21. i guess that i am not fit to live:

    “I say to you, this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. “

  22. #24, ayn rand garbage

    If I own a clothing store, which has a sign that reads, “N Nggrs”, how should you “refuse to submit” to it? How should you change my sign without “violently imposing one’s beliefs on someone else”?

    Your principles are arbitrary, and repeating “nonviolent resistance” is not a substitute for critical evaluation of right and wrong.

  23. #30

    Easy. Non-violent protest outside your store, on the street – and if you’re sentiments echo the sentiments of the community and local establishment – sing songs whilst waiting for the police to show up with their firehoses!

    Also, I’d say any community where t-shirts like that are freely on display, is going to be a community where that t-shirt is the least of its problems.

  24. Martin Luther King Jr. makes a good point, of course, about being unafraid to stand up for what one believes to be right – better yet to stand up for what genuinely IS right versus what one only believes to be – however, I believe the man misses the mark on the statement one must find something one is “willing to die for.” Although, to many, on the surface this seems like wisdom. Nevertheless, to die for something is far less efficient and helpful than it is to live for that thing. Far too many of us behave with this “all or nothing” attitude when a “live to fight another day” attitude serves one’s goals far better.

    I believe George S. Patton made it clear once when he said, “Your job isn’t to die for your country. Your job is to make certain the other poor bastard dies for HIS country.” In a nutshell, Patton was saying the same thing – better to LIVE for your cause than to die for it. After all, you only have one life to give. In most cases, your sacrifice will be quite insufficient in comparison to the influence of your choice to continue to live and fight the winnable battles to eventually win the war.

    True nobility is in living wisely rather than dying needlessly.

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