The Origin of the Phrase "Speaking Truth to Power"

Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin is likely to have coined the phrase,
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"Speaking truth to power" has become a popular way to describe taking a stand, even when the people speaking truth to power are powerful themselves. Although the origin of the phrase is commonly ascribed to a 1955 book advocating against the Cold War, its appears to have been coined earlier by civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

1 "Speak Truth to Power"

The commonly acknowledged flashpoint for the spread of the phrase "speak truth to power" is the 1955 book, Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, published by the American Friends Service Committee. As noted in Hot Pacifism and Cold War, this book received significant media attention during the first year of its publication.

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2 The Official History

The foreword to Speak Truth to Power states that the phrase is from an old Quaker saying from the 18th century, but according to Paul Lacey, the Committee was not able to identify a specific source. Instead, one of the Committee members, a journalist named Milton Mayer, is said to have simply had the phrase come to mind spontaneously, and the Committee agreed that it sounded authentic to the Quaker tradition.

3 The Secret Origin

In I Must Resist, a posthumous 2012 collection of African-American civil rights leader Bayard Rustin's personal correspondence, Rustin states in a 1942 letter that the role of a religious group is to "speak the truth to power," a phrase he attributes to a speech by future ACLU president Patrick Malin. However, these words are not in the text of Malin's speech, suggesting that Rustin himself coined the phrase. As the Committee notes in a 2012 appendix to Speak Truth to Power, Rustin was actually a co-author of the 1955 book, but his contribution was redacted after he was arrested for on charges of committing a homosexual act in 1953. In 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Medal of Freedom.

John Green is an attorney who has been writing on legal, business and media matters for more than 20 years. He has also taught law school and business courses in entrepreneurship, business enterprise, tax and ethics. Green received his J.D. from Yale Law School and his Ph.D. in religion from Duke.