Appalling Silence of the Good People

Martin Luther King Jr.? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. expressed unhappiness with people who were unwilling to support his efforts due to apathy or fear. He used the phrase “appalling silence”. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1958 Martin Luther King Jr. published “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story” which included the following pertinent passage. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

If the moderates of the white South fail to act now, history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the acts and words of the children of darkness but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.

King used the phrase several times as shown in the selected citations in chronological order listed below.

In 1963 “The Atlantic Monthly” published an essay from King titled “The Negro Is Your Brother” also known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” which included the following: 2

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

In 1964 the “Springfield Union” newspaper printed statements from a speech delivered by King at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst: 3

It is also necessary, he said, to develop “an action program” to get rid of the vestiges of segregation. It is not right to wait, he said.

“It may be that this generation will have to repent not only the bad actions of those of ill will but the appalling silence of these who are willing to wait.”

The struggle should be non-violent, Dr. King said, because “violence can bring temporary victory but not permanent peace.”

In 1966 the “Richmond Times-Dispatch” of Virginia reported on another speech delivered by King: 4

King addressed a capacity crowd of nearly 5,000 persons at the University of Rhode Islander’s Keaney Gymnasium.

He said: “The bigots are speaking up now and all too many good people are remaining silent,” adding that, “the appalling silence of the good people is as serious as the vitriolic words of the bad people.”

In conclusion, Martin Luther King Jr. should receive credit for the statement he published in 1958 and for the similar remark within his famous 1963 letter. He also delivered similar statements in later speeches.

(Great thanks to Benjamin Dreyer and Earl E. Appleby Jr. whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)


  1. 1958, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story by Martin Luther King Jr., Chapter 11: Where Do We Go From Here?, Quote Page 202, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1963 August, The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 212, Number 2, The Negro Is Your Brother by Martin Luther King Jr., (Letter From Birmingham Jail), Start Page 78, Quote Page 86, Column 1, Published at The Rumford Press, Concord, New Hampshire. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1964 August 11, Springfield Union, Segregation’s Death Inevitable, Youth Told, (Continuation title “Segregation’s”), Start Page 1, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1966 October 7, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Judge Dismisses Charges Against 17 in Rights Slayings, Quote Page 23, Column 3, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)