The speaker says that democracy will never arrive—that the United States will never be a truly democratic country—if people "compromise" or are afraid. In other words, the speaker implies that the United States is not yet a democracy and that it can only become a democracy through a courageous and unyielding activist movement.
Historical context is important for understanding these opening lines and, in fact, the poem as a whole. Langston Hughes wrote the poem in 1949, in the early days of the Civil Rights movement. At this time, thousands of Black Americans had fought to defend American democracy in World War II. At home, though, they continued to face pervasive segregation, disenfranchisement, and legal or extralegal racist violence.
Additionally, although Black Americans legally had the right to vote, extreme voter suppression and violence made it effectively impossible for them to exercise this right. The speaker of the poem makes it clear that such an unequal society is not a democracy, and that Black Americans and their allies must be bold in their demands for equality and freedom, refusing to concede these basic rights.
The speaker’s reference to the passage of time—"Democracy will not come / Today, this year / Nor ever”—is also important within this context. Almost a century after Emancipation, Black Americans had yet to experience legitimate freedom, racial equality, and opportunity in the United States. The speaker reminds readers that this injustice could potentially go on forever and, for that matter, that it has already gone on for many decades. Listing these increments of time, the speaker uses asyndeton, omitting conjunctions between “today," "this year,” and “nor ever" in a way that makes it seem like this list could go on forever—just like the injustice itself.
The way this sentence appears on the page also has a powerful effect. For the first three lines of the poem, readers must imagine the possibility that democracy “will not come” at all. This introduces a sense of urgency in the poem right at the outset: this social movement to bring about democracy, the speaker makes clear, must happen now. The enjambments at the ends of the lines, between “come / Today” and “this year / Nor ever” heighten this sense of urgency, propelling readers over the line breaks before the definitive full stop at the stanza’s end.
These lines also use patterns of sound to emphasize their meaning. For example, the alliterative hard /c/ sounds and consonant /m/ sounds spotlight the words “come” and “compromise,” calling attention to the idea that democracy won’t “come” on its own—and that it definitely won’t come about by compromising or conceding.