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.

The pas­sages we are post­ing this year are from a por­tion of the let­ter in which Dr. King express­es his dis­ap­point­ment with white mod­er­ates. Address­ing his “Chris­t­ian and Jew­ish broth­ers,” he direct­ly tack­les some of the argu­ments he has heard in oppo­si­tion to his strat­e­gy and tac­tics, includ­ing the argu­ment that “you are in too great a reli­gious hur­ry.” Below are Dr. King’s reflec­tions on this argu­ment and on how he believes that time ends up get­ting misconceived.

(We excerpt­ed the pre­ced­ing para­graphs — which are even bet­ter known — two years ago, and you can read those right here or in the full text of the letter.)

We must come to see that, as the fed­er­al courts have con­sis­tent­ly affirmed, it is wrong to urge an indi­vid­ual to cease his efforts to gain his basic con­sti­tu­tion­al rights because the quest may pre­cip­i­tate vio­lence. Soci­ety must pro­tect the robbed and pun­ish the robber.

I had also hoped that the white mod­er­ate would reject the myth con­cern­ing time in rela­tion to the strug­gle for freedom.

I have just received a let­ter from a white broth­er in Texas. He writes: “All Chris­tians know that the col­ored peo­ple will receive equal rights even­tu­al­ly, but it is pos­si­ble that you are in too great a reli­gious hur­ry. It has tak­en Chris­tian­i­ty almost two thou­sand years to accom­plish what it has. The teach­ings of Christ take time to come to earth.”

Such an atti­tude stems from a trag­ic mis­con­cep­tion of time, from the strange­ly irra­tional notion that there is some­thing in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.

Actu­al­ly, time itself is neu­tral; it can be used either destruc­tive­ly or con­struc­tive­ly. More and more I feel that the peo­ple of ill will have used time much more effec­tive­ly than have the peo­ple of good will.

We will have to repent in this gen­er­a­tion not mere­ly for the hate­ful words and actions of the bad peo­ple but for the appalling silence of the good peo­ple. Human progress nev­er rolls in on wheels of inevitabil­i­ty; it comes through the tire­less efforts of men will­ing to be co work­ers with God, and with­out this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

We must use time cre­ative­ly, in the knowl­edge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democ­ra­cy and trans­form our pend­ing nation­al ele­gy into a cre­ative psalm of broth­er­hood. Now is the time to lift our nation­al pol­i­cy from the quick­sand of racial injus­tice to the sol­id rock of human dignity.

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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