Martin Luther King, Jr.: Time is neutral, it can be used either destructively or constructively

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.

Andrew Villeneuve

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