MLK at a Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.
Rowland Scherman - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (Taken August 28th, 1963)

Today is Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Day, and like we do every year in hon­or of Dr. King’s mem­o­ry, I’m post­ing an excerpt from his Let­ter From Birm­ing­ham Jail.

In these pas­sages, Dr. King is express­ing his impa­tience and deep dis­ap­point­ment with so-called “white mod­er­ates”, who he laments are more con­cerned with order than jus­tice. Dr. King open­ly pon­ders whether “white mod­er­ates” are a big­ger “stum­bling block” pre­vent­ing the advance­ment of the cause of civ­il rights than racist white suprema­cist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

Dr. King goes on to explain that injus­tice requires expo­sure, and that the “ten­sion” that white mod­er­ates wor­ry about already exist­ed before the work of the civ­il rights move­ment brought it to the sur­face for examination.

Many decades have elapsed since these words were writ­ten. Sad­ly, racism and injus­tice remain a painful real­i­ty for many peo­ple in this country.

Nev­er­the­less, the strug­gle for greater free­dom and equal­i­ty continues.

Here’s Dr. King. (Note that typos are con­tained in the orig­i­nal manuscript.)

I must make two hon­est con­fes­sions to you, my Chris­t­ian and Jew­ish broth­ers. First, I must con­fess that over the past few years I have been grave­ly dis­ap­point­ed with the white moderate.

I have almost reached the regret­table con­clu­sion that the Negro’s great stum­bling block in his stride toward free­dom is not the White Cit­i­zen’s Coun­cil­er or the Ku Klux Klan­ner, but the white mod­er­ate, who is more devot­ed to “order” than to jus­tice; who prefers a neg­a­tive peace which is the absence of ten­sion to a pos­i­tive peace which is the pres­ence of jus­tice; who con­stant­ly says:

“I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can­not agree with your meth­ods of direct action”; who pater­nal­is­ti­cal­ly believes he can set the timetable for anoth­er man’s free­dom; who lives by a myth­i­cal con­cept of time and who con­stant­ly advis­es the Negro to wait for a “more con­ve­nient season.”

Shal­low under­stand­ing from peo­ple of good will is more frus­trat­ing than absolute mis­un­der­stand­ing from peo­ple of ill will. Luke­warm accep­tance is much more bewil­der­ing than out­right rejection.

I had hoped that the white mod­er­ate would under­stand that law and order exist for the pur­pose of estab­lish­ing jus­tice and that when they fail in this pur­pose they become the dan­ger­ous­ly struc­tured dams that block the flow of social progress.

I had hoped that the white mod­er­ate would under­stand that the present ten­sion in the South is a nec­es­sary phase of the tran­si­tion from an obnox­ious neg­a­tive peace, in which the Negro pas­sive­ly accept­ed his unjust plight, to a sub­stan­tive and pos­i­tive peace, in which all men will respect the dig­ni­ty and worth of human personality.

Actu­al­ly, we who engage in non­vi­o­lent direct action are not the cre­ators of ten­sion. We mere­ly bring to the sur­face the hid­den ten­sion that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can nev­er be cured so long as it is cov­ered up but must be opened with all its ugli­ness to the nat­ur­al med­i­cines of air and light, injus­tice must be exposed, with all the ten­sion its expo­sure cre­ates, to the light of human con­science and the air of nation­al opin­ion before it can be cured.

Take a few min­utes today to read the whole thing.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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