What does Martin Luther King, Jr mean when he says "Our lives begin the day that we become silent about things that matter"?

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First, we should note that the quote in the question is missing an important word that totally alters the meaning. It should read "Our lives begin to end  the day we become silent about things that matter." This is one of King's most-quoted lines, but it is almost always quoted...

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First, we should note that the quote in the question is missing an important word that totally alters the meaning. It should read "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." This is one of King's most-quoted lines, but it is almost always quoted without attribution, which means that, without going through all of King's published papers, it is impossible to know its context. But it is not hard, if you know a little about King's philosophy, to figure out what he means. 

King thought that injustice in the world had to be resisted, and that even remaining silent about injustice was more or less the same thing as accepting it. As he said in perhaps his second most famous work (behind the speech at the March on Washington):

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. 

Good people could not tolerate injustice, and to "be silent" about "things that matter" was, in King's mind, immoral. To be a moral person was to resist, or at least speak out against, oppression. To fail to do so was to allow one of the things that makes us human to die, as the quote suggests.

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