Nearly 60 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “ Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The lengthy epistle, which came after a group of white faith leaders in Alabama had criticized King’s actions for being “ unwise and untimely,” is often required reading in school. And it deserves another close look as protests continue across the country and our president tweets about “Law and Order.”
White people in particular should read this letter right now — not for lack of contemporary black voices who are eloquently speaking to their experiences in American today — but because of the many ways that, aside from specific organizations and locations involved, King’s letter could very well be describing current events. It’s a remarkable piece of writing, a stirring call to action, and a monument to how little has changed since 1963, despite passage of the Civil Rights Act the following year.
As some online have ridiculously tried to explain King’s thoughts on rioting to his own son, and others have argued over or simplified his legacy, it’s worth the time for readers to let King speak for himself.
“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,” King wrote. “[W]ho 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.”
It’s important, but not enough, for white Americans to listen to the pain and injustice being voiced by our black, brown and indigenous neighbors. We also need to resist falling into the same traps of white moderate thinking that King wrote about. As he said, time can be used destructively or constructively. It’s not inevitable that the constructive good wins out; that takes work from all of us.
“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,” King wrote. “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.”
The work includes, at a minimum, acknowledging what should be a simple, apolitical truth: that black lives matter. We’re past the point where there are constructive “sides” in this particular debate. It never should have been seen as a debate in the first place.
Now, is there still room for moderation in response to specific policy proposals, like defunding the police? Can we be careful to differentiate between efforts to “dismantle” a local police force like the one underway in Minneapolis from the need to shift how American communities police and allocate resources, and still be part of bending America’s moral arc toward justice? Can we disagree on what that resource reallocation should look like? We hope so. Does asking these questions make us the white moderates that King criticised? We sure hope not.
“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,” King added in his jail cell letter, which should remind us that some of those considered lawbreakers today could eventually find themselves memorialized among presidents along the National Mall. “Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
Those words were true in 1963. And, unfortunately, absent more sustained and meaningful change, they remain true today. All Americans, including and perhaps especially the white moderates King called out decades ago, have a responsibility to join in the heavy lifting of building a more just society.
Watch: Hundreds march through downtown to protest racial inequality