Adage Origin: You Are Either Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution

Eldridge Cleaver? Harry Emerson Fosdick? Edna G. Fuller? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: The world faces many difficulties, and each of us must shoulder the responsibility for helping to solve or ameliorate these difficulties. Here are three versions of a pertinent adage:

(1) Each individual is either part of the problem or part of the answer.
(2) You and I are either part of the solution or part of the problem.
(3) If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.

This saying has been attributed to U.S. pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick and U.S. activist Eldridge Cleaver. I have not seen any solid citations. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in the “Columbia Daily Spectator” of New York on October 16, 1936 within an advertisement for a church service conducted by Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1936 October 16, Columbia Daily Spectator, Volume LX, Number 17, Section: Religious Announcements, Advertisement: The Riverside Church at Riverside Drive and 122nd Street, Quote Page 2, Column 4, New York. (Columbia Spectator Archive; accessed on June 13, 2023; link [/ref]

The Riverside Church
Riverside Drive and 122nd Street

11 A. M. Morning Worship
Harry Emerson Fosdick

On October 27, 1936 “The Windsor Daily Star” of Ontario, Canada published a column containing the following:[ref] 1936 October 27, The Windsor Daily Star, As We See It by W. L. Clark, The Lure of Generalities, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Windsor, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com) link [/ref]

In a world which turns so quickly to the lure of pleasing generalities, it is well to pause and think deeply of whether each one, as an individual, is a part of the problem or a part of the answer, says Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, D.D., pastor of Riverside Church, New York City.

QI believes that Harry Emerson Fosdick deserves credit for originating this family of sayings. During the 1930s several different phrasings were attributed to him. Eldridge Cleaver employed the saying by 1968.

Additional details and citations are available in the article on the Medium platform which is located here.

A separate QI article located here examines the humorous saying “If you are not part of the solution then you’re part of the precipitate”.

Image Notes: Illustration of puzzle pieces from PIRO4D at Pixabay. The image has been cropped.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Steve Robinson whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Simon Koppel who told QI about the first citation dated October 16, 1936. Additional thanks to previous researchers including Ralph Keyes, Nigel Rees, Jennifer Speake, Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro. “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” explored this saying and found citations beginning in 1937. Also, thanks to SKMurphy who suggested linking this article to the QI article about the quip mentioning precipitate.

Update History: On June 13, 2023 the citations dated October 16, 1936 and November 21, 1936 were added to the full article. In June 29, 2023 a link to a variant quip was added.

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