The Good People, Then and Now

As we commemorate Martin Luther King’s life today, here is what I think may be the most important passage from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written to the clergy of Birmingham who counseled against the SCLC‘s protests in that city in 1963:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that 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.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? 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. [emphasis mine]

It seems oddly appropriate that this letter to clergymen speaks so directly to the actions of an ordained minister in the past week. Mike Huckabee had a chance to do the right thing in a circumstance where it almost certainly wouldn’t have cost him any votes, like two of his fellow Republican presidential candidates did. Instead, he did the cowardly thing and, echoing the “outside agitators” rhetoric of the opponents of civil rights, said the following:

South Carolina people know true conservatism when they see it. You don’t like people outside the state telling you how you ought to raise your kids, you don’t like people from outside the state telling you what to do with the flag. In fact, if somebody came down to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we’d tell ’em where to put the pole.

I think at least in this case Dr. King would have found silence less appalling. The good people of South Carolina, however, spoke with their votes on Saturday and have effectively eliminated Huckabee as a viable contender for the presidency. Perhaps the good people of that state will this Saturday speak again in opposition to the charlatan spouse of “America’s first black president,” a man whose tenure in the Oval Office was long on lip service to the black community but short on deeds, and in support of the candidacy of the man who is Dr. King’s dream made manifest, Barack Obama.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Blogosphere, Democracy, Race and Politics, The Presidency, US Constitution, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Chris Lawrence
About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (with concentrations in American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi. He began writing for OTB in June 2006. Follow him on Twitter @lordsutch.


  1. Tlaloc says:

    I think at least in this case Dr. King would have found silence less appalling. The good people of South Carolina, however, spoke with their votes on Saturday and have effectively eliminated Huckabee as a viable contender for the presidency.

    I wouldn’t go that far. Huckabee got 30% of the vote in a five way race. He was only 3% off the leader (McCain) IIRC.

    Not winning SC surely hurts but he came in a very strong second so I don’t see ho you could say he’s knocked out of the race (unlike Fred). He’s certainly not the frontrunner but he’s doing a lot better than Giuliani.

  2. DL says:

    What would the good Dr. King have thought about Obama’s cozy relationship with the afro-centrist black separatist church he belongs to.

    God forbid we lose this great nation because of the lack of “content of one’s character” in our leadership – rather than the politicaly popular focus on gender, race, religion, yankee or rebel, older or youthful, and other such superficial stuff. Is there no greatness anywhere among 3 million people that we can’t address the big issue and put this childish crap behind us once and for all?

    Has picking a leader been reduced to dealing with the same type of mental nonsense we’re subjected to when we buy a used car?

  3. Derrick says:


    Great red herring with the “black separatist” part. The afro-centrist part is pretty accurate though but I doubt that Dr. King, who was pretty afro-centrist himself, would have a problem. You obviously haven’t read much about Dr. King, for he asks you to “judge not” on one’s skin color, not that it was irrelevant. Conservatives like yourself seem to always be confused about this. Dr. King asked that you not judge him based on his skin color or race, which is far different than denying his ancestry as I guess your asking.

  4. DL says:

    Derrick, I won’t say I knew King as well as you apparently have, but I did wear an armband at work for the cause and wasn’t appreciated for doing it. I also remember those southern separate washrooms and drinking fountains. However, the victim card (And the nanny state) has hurt the black community badly and when they stop dealing with their needs based upon the color of their skin – I’ll have hope for them. Until then I’ll fight like blazes to stop this identity politics and special treatment including immunity from criticism.

    One nation indivisible doesn’t include this special interest politics based uppon superficial criteria.

  5. MSS says:

    Terrific post, Chris. But one addendum: Not only did Huckabee barely finish behind McCain (who in turn failed to win even 1/3 of the vote), but he also won more votes than McCain among Republicans (and self-identified Christians). So, I would not credit “the good people of South Carolina” too much here. Huckabee pandered to his base and it worked. Except that McCain drew in just enough non-Republicans to edge him out. Barely.

    Still, terrific post.