But if Not

In 1967, Martin Luther King delivered a speech about civil disobedience, entitled “But if Not“. One passage from the speech – which was delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta – seems quite relevant to climate change today, particularly when it comes to people who have a high degree of knowledge about the subject:

I say to you this morning that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it then you aren’t fit to live. You may be thirty eight years old, as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up 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 you will lose your job; or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity; or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, shoot at you, or bomb your house and so you refuse to take a stand. Well you may go on and live until you’re ninety, but you’re just as dead at thirty eight 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.

The point about integrity relates to one made by the physicist Richard Feynman, who argued that experts lose their integrity when they allow their conclusions to be publicized – when they are useful to those in power – and allow them to be buried when they are not.

[Update: 19 January 2015] I noticed that the YouTube link in the original post is dead, so here is an audio version.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

6 thoughts on “But if Not”

  1. This is a very powerful part of a speech and it helps to remind me to stand firmly behind what I believe and need to achieve. Few people have pure integrity, but it does not hurt to work on defining our principles and doing the very best that we can.

  2. Equating the struggle against climate change with the struggle for civil rights could be a useful strategy. For instance, the civil rights movement is one of the examples where the general public accepts that civil disobedience was justified and necessary. The civil rights movement also produced a lot of useful rhetoric, and achieved a success that is no longer politically controversial.

  3. “The dangers were even clearer in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, another of the sentinel campaigns of the civil-rights movement. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee recruited hundreds of Northern, largely white unpaid volunteers to run Freedom Schools, register black voters, and raise civil-rights awareness in the Deep South. “No one should go anywhere alone, but certainly not in an automobile and certainly not at night,” they were instructed. Within days of arriving in Mississippi, three volunteers—Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—were kidnapped and killed, and, during the rest of the summer, thirty-seven black churches were set on fire and dozens of safe houses were bombed; volunteers were beaten, shot at, arrested, and trailed by pickup trucks full of armed men. A quarter of those in the program dropped out. Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.

  4. “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

    Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“.

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