A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes*

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. Not Martin Luther King

Powerful words from a great American orator, Martin Luther King. This particular quote and its message of speaking out against injustice has found its way into numerous books, articles, countless images online, and even the Congressional Record. However, it appears that Martin Luther King never uttered these words—at least, there is no record of it that I can find.

Recently, I submitted an entry to a poster design competition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. Why, you ask? Because $$$. Universities have become obscenely, unethically expensive. Trying to come up with a design, I realized the hard problem was that I was trying to visualize speech—trying to illustrate spoken word.

I set out in search of ways to visualize the cadence and rhythm of spoken English, where I stumbled across an article by Tommie Nieminen and Michael L. O’Dell: Visualising speech rhythm: A survey of alternatives. The author described various linguistic approaches to visualizing speech patterns in English, including a pseudo-musical notation by David Crystal:

Crystal

It was perfect—a simple notation of dots and lines that, for even a lay person, depicted the tempo and rising and falling of speech. Pair this with a powerful quote about freedom of expression, and I would have my poster!

And it was then that I found Dr. King’s famous quote. It was perfect—not merely a celebration of free speech, but a call to action. Now all I needed to finish my poster was to actually hear King speak the words. And it was here that I ran into trouble.

My first step was to determine from which of King’s many speeches and lectures the quote came from. The only citation I could find was from Trumpet of Conscience—a book containing the transcripts of the Massey lectures, a series of radio lectures broadcast by the Canadian Broadcast Company in 1967. Happily, the lectures were all online and freely available.

I listened to all 150 minutes of speech, and never heard the quote. However, I couldn’t say that I listened attentively to all 2.5 hours—perhaps I zoned out right when he spoke the words, or perhaps the quote was, in fact, from another lecture.

Another source also cited Trumpet of Conscience, but specified the source as the “Steeler Lecture.” One book cited as a source The Moral Point of View by RH Bainton—a book that, from what I can tell, simply doesn’t exist. It was published 10 years after the death of the author, who—while known for writing books on the German Christian reformer Martin Luther, was not known to have published any books on Martin Luther King. A search of the publishing house’s catalog—Cornell University—likewise produced no such title.

The only lead I had left was Trumpet of Conscience, a book long-since out of print. Luckily, one of the (fantastic!) UC Berkeley libraries had a copy. Sure enough, the only lectures contained in the book were the 5 Massey lectures. Nonetheless, I scanned the text just to be sure. The quote was not there, nor any mention of the “Steeler Lecture.” Online, the only reference I could find to any such lecture was as a citation for this quote.

After several days of research, it appears that—if Dr. King ever uttered these words—they were not recorded. Or, as is perhaps more likely, the quote was at some point misattributed to the reverend or simply invented and—through the power of the Internet—became established urban legend.

As for the poster project, I eventually settled on another quote from King, from his speech “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam”:

There comes a time when silence is betrayal