Famous Sayings #191 — ‘The Tranquilizing Drug of Gradualism’

January 18, 2021

This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

Rowland Scherman, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Today is Martin Luther King Day, and to commemorate this holiday, I would like to revisit another quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. This quote might not be as familiar to most of us as some others, but it is one that is oft-repeated by activists because of what it says about the fight against inequality.

Where Does the Quote About the ‘Tranquilizing Drug of Gradualism’ Come From?

Of course, this quote can be found in King’s often-cited “I Have a Dream Speech,” which he gave in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While the parts where King says, “I Have a Dream,” and the last lines of the speech (“Free at Last …”) are the most cited, the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” portion is often ignored, but significant.

King warned about the dangers of gradualism right after talking about the Emancipation Proclamation that was signed by President Abraham Lincoln 100 years prior. King was also comparing the promises that this nation made in that proclamation and its Constitution to a promissory note. Here is the entire quote in context (taken from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford):

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is not time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real promises of democracy; now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice; now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood; now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

What Did Martin Luther King, Jr. Mean By this Quote?

When King was talking about gradualism, he was referring to politicians giving Black folks small concessions in response to the Civil Rights Movement. Basically, King putting these politicians on notice by saying that there should be no incremental changes in the fight for equal rights. King was also warning activists not to become complacent with each positive development. A drastic change was needed immediately because it was the right thing to do and it would ensure the health of the nation:

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in American until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

The reverend went further when pointing out how the rights of all Americans, no matter that color of the skin, were interconnected:

The marvelous militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realized that their destiny is tied up with our destiny, and they have come to realized that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

Why Is Gradualism Harmful?

When I think about gradualism, I do think about civil rights and domestic policy. As it pertains to civil rights, there have been positive changes, like the greater acceptance of our gay brothers and sisters and more awareness about how Black folks are more impacted by racism, classism, and police brutality. At the same time, many people died in the fight for equality. Also, as in the past, the people sounding the alarms against modern-day oppression are never popular. It takes years of messaging, activism, and first-hand experience for people to change their views for the better.

A change in policies may be met with resistance, but these policies are sometimes more effective than other methods when enforced properly and quickly put into place. But gradual changes give people an excuse to cling to their prejudices and bad habits. These changes can also be easily undone and lead to more damage. For instance, some domestic issues, like the U.S. health care system, shouldn’t be addressed with small, gradual changes, but may need a full overhaul. People are dying for lack of health insurance and that should concern us all. Some worldwide issues, like climate catastrophe, should be addressed now and with drastic changes to help us avoid the worst effects.

You cannot deal with a deep cut with just a Band-Aid. The person who has that wound may need to undergo surgery and/or receive stitches. You cannot properly deal with a leaky roof but just patching some holes with tar. Instead, you might need to replace all the roof tiles. Gradualism can be not only harmful but fatal because it fails to address huge problems with the level of urgency and proportionality that they deserve.

What Other Lessons Do I Take from This Part of King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech?

King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, like many of his speeches, was prescient. He is often quoted because we are dealing with all of the same problems that he was fighting against/commented on in his day, with a few distinct changes. Specifically, the full context of his phrase “the tranquilizing drug of freedom” applies not only to the Civil Rights Movement but broadly to worldwide human rights.

When one group of people has their rights violated, it does not ensure that other people are protected. In fact, it’s the opposite. When we accept that one group is marginalized, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of us are affected by it. We first must recognize who benefits most from some people being oppressed because those who benefit the most from that oppression are more than willing to oppress others outside their own group.

For example, racism is one of the greatest problems that Americans face, but it is inextricably linked with class. Thus, while only non-whites could be oppressed, poor whites are oppressed because of their economic standing. The failure to fight against all these forms of oppression enables them.

This notion also applies to our foreign policy. Whenever Americans see their government bomb another country, abuse citizens of that country, or install a leader there, many of those same tactics will be used against Americans later. Thus, our foreign policy and domestic policy are inextricably linked.


“Gradualism.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gradualism. Accessed 18 Jan. 2021.

“‘I Have a Dream,’ Address Delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/i-have-dream-address-delivered-march-washington-jobs-and-freedom. Retrieved 18 January 2021.


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