In today’s blog article, which I am writing on Martin Luther King, jr. Day of 2017, I’d like to take a moment to discuss my favorite MLK quote, which comes from the letter he wrote while serving time in a Birmingham jail for civil disobedience. Here’s the quote:
“First, I must confess that over the last 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 the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er 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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.””
Full disclosure: I am one of the white moderates that Dr. King is targeting here. At various points in my life, I have considered myself to be post-racial (“I don’t see race!”), fully supportive of efforts to fight racism (while doing nothing active to help the cause), and even judgmental towards those that I saw as fighting racism the “wrong way”.
The quote speaks to me because I recognize myself in it, and I am ashamed by it. When Dr. King wrote this letter, he addressed it to the white ministers in the southern churches that saw themselves as allies in the fight for civil rights, but disagreed with the way that MLK was conducting the fight. They would scold him when he used civil disobedience, pointing out that it made African Americans appear to be lawless or disrespectful toward the social order. They promised that a time would come (eventually), when all races were treated as equals, but that it could not be rushed.
It’s a message we see again and again when people are fighting for civil rights. Just wait until the bigots are gone, and things will get better. We can create change by appealing to the youth, and once they are in charge, things will improve. Such messages are well intentioned but dangerously out of touch. First, there is evidence that racism does not go away, so much as it changes in various ways. Certainly, today’s generations are less likely to be openly racist than people were in the 1960s, but that’s because people like Dr. King made it unacceptable to be blatantly bigoted. That’s a good thing, but it is far from the end goal of an equitable society.
But even if time could eventually solve such social injustices, the people who are living right now do not have the time to wait. At the time when Dr. King wrote his letter, many of the laws preventing interracial marriages were still on the books. That’s right—fifty years ago, when your parents or grandparents were of an age to be married, they would not have been allowed to do so if their partner had been born with different color skin. How long would you have people wait for the basic right to marry someone they love? How long should they wait to be able to attend good schools, or receive services at restaurants.
Waiting is a terrible response to injustice. We cannot sit out the fight for equality. We cannot pretend to support a cause by passive approval of its goals.
Dr. King was right, and he is still right. Those who openly hate people for how they were born are relatively easy to spot. The KKK still marches through the streets, often without their hoods, openly calling for racial purity. In some cases, they have come up with new names, like the “Alt-Right”, but the message is the same, and it disgusts the moral people in our society who see it as an anachronism from darker times. But what are we going to do about it?