What We Need to Hear: The Words of MLK Jr.


By Virginia Santy

Recently, a dude, a white dude, who happens to be one of the best dudes I know, told me he reads Letter from Birmingham Jail every year. "Because I learn something new each time I read it," he responded when I asked him why.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began writing the letter long hand while he sat in jail in Alabama in April of 1963. The details of not only writing the letter, but the efforts to get it out of the jail as well as the tribulations of its publishing in the months following King's incarceration feel nostalgically noble in today's Twitter-ized socio-political landscape. 

King's letter is a response to a statement from eight white Alabama clergymen criticizing King and his efforts to protest segregation and racism in the city of Birmingham. After reading the statement, printed in a newspaper a friend smuggled in to the jail for King to read, King began crafting his response in the paper's margins. 

The letter's opening line reads, "While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities 'unwise and untimely.'" The remaining pages of the letter feature King's refutations of those two claims--unwise and untimely--on moral, legal, and historical grounds. 

I admit I hadn't read King's letter since I was in college. As I read it today, I was sadly not surprised to find much of it just as fitting decades later. One argument in particular stood out: King's criticism of the "white moderate." King writes "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 Citizens Councillor 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. . . ." 

It's the easiest thing in the world to be a white moderate. History hasn't captured them in the same ugly light as those who are more overtly racist. There are no photographs of white moderates screaming their outrage at black students entering previously segregated schools. White moderates don't participate in white pride rallies or don costumes. They don't have to. As King pointed out fifty-five years ago, their impassivity is the most powerful tool in maintaining racial inequities. 

Yes, it's easy to be a white moderate. It's comfortable. It doesn't require any itchy self-reflection or surrender of privilege. It's also the wrong kind of peace.

Letter from Birmingham Jail is a gorgeous read. You'll learn something new, as I did, as my friend does each year. The question is, what will we do--not someday, but now--with what we learn? 

Cover art: Portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Betsy G. Reyneau [public domain]