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.