What did Martin Luther King, Jr. mean when he said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter?"

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Although Martin Luther King, Jr. is best known for his work in the Civil Rights movement and his landmark "I Have a Dream" speech, given at the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963, his background was actually in theology, and his work and writings on civil rights were always couched in the context of social justice for everyone.  In other words, African-Americans were asking for something that was (and is) due every human being:  equal rights and fair treatment under the law.  King spoke frequently of the need for people to speak out against that which is wrong, as in these comments he made specifically about the struggles and violence of the civil rights era:

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.

On another occasion, King seemed to call on his theological background when he invoked the idea of evil forces, saying:

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

King's comment about silence bringing out the end of one's life is metaphorical, of course.  He is suggesting that there is no real purpose to a life lived in apathy or resignation to the status quo, when the status quo needs to be changed.  Throughout human history, human beings have been faced with the challenge of "going along" and trying to "fly under the radar" as the saying goes, or standing up, speaking out, and risking social ostracism or even malicious retribution; Nazi Germany in the years when Hitler came to power is one of the more tragic examples of the consequences of apathy, resignation, or even unawareness.  Life as Germany knew it certainly ended, literally and figuratively, and one doesn't need a history book to know of the millions of innocent lives that were extinguished at the hands of the murderous Nazi regime.