The Lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King


On this day of celebration of the courage and life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we must not slough off his powerful focus on the true source of many problems of his day — and of ours.  The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” did not focus, as many people assume, on the overt racists in Alabama.  It was actually addressed to his fellow clergy — white clergy — who told him that they agreed with his goals, but not with his method of direct action.  They told him that he was unwise to move forward when people were just beginning to consider his point of view.  We should reread the whole letter because he elegantly, politely, and firmly rejects this line of argument.


We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied.”


He goes on to say:


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.


We still have a long way to go to eradicate the deep racial and gender injustices that are built into the bones of our institutions.  We have a long way to go to reduce and eliminate the brutal and unnecessary inequalities of wages and wealth that are sapping our soul and strength as a democracy.  And when we turn in every direction to search for those who are slowing our progress, we too easily point to others who we believe are to blame.  

If we wish truly to honor Dr. King we must humbly and bravely acknowledge that we too — here in moderate Massachusetts - have slowed action because we so mightily prefer the status quo.  Urgent times are upon us, voices everywhere are calling for justice, and in the here and now it is up to us — not Donald Trump, not the Republican party, not even the mighty economic forces which bind us — to act. 

I encourage everyone to read the full letter, it is one of the most brilliantly and passionately argued statements for social justice ever written.