Never Doubt That a Small Group of Thoughtful, Committed Citizens Can Change the World; Indeed, It’s the Only Thing That Ever Has

Margaret Mead? Donald Keys? Norman Vincent Peale? Patrick E. Haggerty? R. H. Edwin Espy? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular energizing statement about small groups changing the world is usually attributed to the influential cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Yet, I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: Researchers have been unsuccessful in finding the quotation in Margaret Mead’s corpus. The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the 1982 book “Earth at Omega: Passage to Planetization”. The epigraph of chapter 6 was the following. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
— Margaret Mead

The author, Donald Keys, did not provide any details about the source of the statement. Margaret Mead had died a few years earlier in 1978.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The notion that a small group can change the world has been expressed many times in the past. In 1959 the minister and motivational speaker Norman Vincent Peale described a germinal group of two: 2

. . . a demonstration of an age-old principle: That you can change your life, that I can change mine and that together we can change the world around us.

In 1963 Patrick E. Haggerty who was one of the founders of the ground-breaking technology company Texas Instruments was quoted in “The Dallas Morning News” of Texas as follows: 3

“It’s a tremendously stimulating thing,” Pat Haggerty said, “for each person who has learned that a small group of individuals can change the world if they really want to.”

In 1967 a religious figure employed a partial match as recorded in the “New York Times”. He used the terms “thoughtful” and “citizens” together with the phrase “change the world”: 4

The Rev R. H. Edwin Espy, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said that the project has been undertaken “in the conviction that informed, concerned and thoughtful citizens can change the world.”

In 1982 the book “Earth at Omega: Passage to Planetization” by Donald Keys included the full modern quotation ascribed to Margaret Mead as noted at the beginning of this article.

In March 1982 the newspaper “100 Mile House Free Press” of British Columbia, Canada reported that a local group called “Planetary Initiative for the World We Choose” was scheduled to meet. Donald Keys was one of the group founders, and the organizers planned to show a videotape of a public address he had delivered in January. The article began with the saying: 5

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret Mead, anthropologist, recipient of the Planetary Citizen of the Year Award in 1978.

This quotation especially appeals to Carol McCuaig, who with Stephen Leckie, both of 100 Mile House, will be hosting the first local meeting of Planetary Initiative for the World We Choose on Thursday, March 11 at 7:30 p.m. in the board room at Red Coach Inn.

In 1984 “Curing Nuclear Madness: A New-Age Prescription for Personal Action” by Frank G. Sommers with Tana Dineen presented the saying as a chapter epigraph: 6

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
MARGARET MEAD

In 1986 a newspaper in Akron, Ohio remarked that the quotation appeared in a film titled “Women — For America, For the World” which was directed by Vivienne Verdon-Roe; the film later won an Academy Award: 7

Her hope is capsulized in a quotation from the late Margaret Mead that concludes the film: “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, that is all that ever has.”

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current knowledge. Donald Keys appears to be the crucial initial propagator of the quotation although it remains unclear how he learned about the statement. The precise phrasing and the ascription to Margaret Mead hinge on his veracity. There is no substantive support for competing ascriptions, and QI would tentatively assign the saying to Mead.

Image Notes: Picture of Margaret Mead from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Author: Edward Lynch, World-Telegram staff photographer. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Illustration of hands reaching into a circle from harishs at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to George Marshall, Daniel Gackle, Carol Lamm, Drew Myron, and Matthew Warshauer whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to the pioneering researchers Fred R. Shapiro, Ralph Keyes, Barry Popik, Bill Mullins and Mardy Grothe. Thanks also to discussants Jonathan Lighter and Wilson Gray.)

Notes:

  1. 1982 Copyright, Earth at Omega: Passage to Planetization by Donald Keys, (Epigraph of Chapter VI: The Politics of Consciousness), Quote Page 79, Published by Branden Press, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Preview)
  2. 1959 February 15, Greensboro Daily News, Confident Living by Dr. Norman V. Peale, Quote Page D2, Column 6, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1963 May 12, The Dallas Morning News, Why Busy Men Go Extracurricular by Al Altwegg (Business Editor of The News), Section 3, Quote Page 1, Column 4, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1967 August 30, New York Times, TV-Discussion Series Planned By Church Council and C.B.S., Quote Page 22, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest)
  5. 1982 March 3, 100 Mile House Free Press, Planetary Initiative group forms, Quote Page 16, Column 1, 100 Mile House, British Columbia, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1984 Copyright, Curing Nuclear Madness: A New-Age Prescription for Personal Action by Frank G. Sommers with Tana Dineen, (Epigraph of Chapter 8: The Birth of a Peaceful Planet), Methuen Publications, Ontario, Canada. (Google Preview)
  7. 1986 May 25, The Akron Beacon Journal, Women protest nuclear arms in acclaimed film (Continuation title: Protesting arms race in film) by Jan C. Snow (Special to the Beacon Journal), Start Page F1, Quote Page F2, Column 1, Akron, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)