17 January 2013

Martin Luther King and “A Right Delayed”

An awful lot of websites and books published in the last twenty years quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as saying “A right delayed is a right denied.” Those publications come from both the left and the right, but the citation is currently spreading with people who want to buy more and more guns. (Apparently they can’t see the incongruity of quoting a pacifist murdered by a right-winger with a gun.)

And I don’t think King even said those words. None of those attributions provide a specific article, speech, or book as a source, which is always suspicious. The phrases don’t appear in authorized collections of his work. Instead, the line seems to be a poor rendering of something else King wrote repeatedly: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” (Which makes sense—“justice” can be delayed, but “a right” either exists or not.)

However, King never claimed to have coined that line. In a December 1961 speech to the AFL-CIO titled “If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins,” he stated: “There is a maxim in the law—justice too long delayed, is justice denied.”

King quoted the line again in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April 1963. In different versions of this text, King ascribed the quote to “one of our distinguished jurists” and “the distinguished jurist of yesterday.”

In the 9 Mar 1964 Nation, King wrote: “This is the test to which concerned national leaders are put—not by civil rights leaders as such, but by conditions too brutal to be endured, and by justice too long delayed to be justified.”

In “Civil Right No. 1,“ published in the New York Times in March 1965, King wrote: “The delays inherent in test cases, where the U.S. Supreme Court must ultimately rule, make sadly pertinent the comment of Chief Justice Earl Warren in the school desegregation cases: ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’” Clearly King was trying to invoke authority for his side of the argument, just as people try to invoke King’s name for theirs now.

I can’t find Warren writing those words in a desegregation decision, but I found an essay in which the Chief Justice wrote, “Justice delayed is often justice denied.” However, as King initially stated, that was a legal maxim, not Warren’s coinage. Those same words also appeared in an issue of The Outlook in June 1909. And former Colorado governor C. S. Thomas delivered a speech titled “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied” to the Iowa Bar Association in 1910.

So how far back can we go? In March 1868, during debate in Parliament over the disestablishment in Ireland, William Ewart Gladstone said:
But, above all, if we be just men, we shall go forward in the name of truth and right, bearing this in mind—that, when the case is proved and the hour is come, justice delayed is justice denied.
And further back! The British writer Walter Savage Landor used the line “Delay in justice is injustice” in an “Imaginary Conversation” between “Peter Leopold and President Du Paty” published before 1846.

And back still further! On 19 Dec 1825 Condy Roguet, a grumpy American diplomat in Brazil, wrote: “Justice, too long delayed, ceases to be justice.”

On the other hand, if folks want an exact source for “A right delayed is a right denied,” its earliest appearance seems to be the transcript of a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on the “Czechoslovakian claims fund” in 1957. Much less inspirational than Martin Luther King.


Tango said...

Great article, just a quick point.

Dr. King may have been a pacifist, but he was not against the right to self defense or firearms ownership.

William Worthy, a journalist attending the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who interviewed King several times, made note of his extensive collection of firearms.

In 1956, after his house was firebombed, he applied for a concealed carry permit, which was denied by the white local law enforcement - another example of how the 2nd Amendment was often denied to blacks in the segregation era south, although it remained little changed from the French Code Noir of 1685.

J. L. Bell said...

In a speech after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, King included “our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim” among the failings of American society. So his views on gun ownership might have changed after 1956.

As I wrote above, many political debaters try to invoke King today, even those who would probably have opposed him completely during his lifetime.

Historically, his life seems like a poor argument for the notion that owning guns keeps one safe from violence and crime.

Web Hutchins said...

Great article - lucid clarification of the CJ Warren role - its a tangled, twisting landscape to maintain accurate attribution with a number of King's phrases. Thanks! Web Hutchins www.civicsforall.org

Clayton Cramer said...

See Charles Cobb's This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible http://www.amazon.com/This-Nonviolent-Stuffll-Get-Killed/dp/0465033105. Cobb was a civil rights activist back then, and describes having trouble opening a door in Dr. King's house because of the number of guns behind the door.