MLK’s Critique of the White Moderate Christians

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by Rebecca Koerselman

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote and spoke with great eloquence on the subject of race, religion, justice, and poverty. My favorite piece is his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, from April 16 of 1963.

I am convicted by Dr. King’s passionate words every time I read this letter.

King made a compelling argument for why he pursued justice now after waiting for 340 years. King clearly articulated the methods of non-violence and why they were so effective. And, significantly, King gently took the white clergy and moderate white Christians to task for standing by and allowing injustice to flourish.

What does it mean to be a moderate white Christians that allows injustice to flourish?

In the words of Dr. King:

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 Councilor 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.

Koerselman MLK2Is the white moderate still more devoted to order than to justice?
Do Americans understand that the failure of justice results in Americans becoming the structured dams that block the flow of social progress?
Do we decide when is the “right time” to pursue justice?
Do we prefer to ignore and cover up the tensions that exist?
What would Dr. King have to say to us today?

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.

Comments 4

  1. Dr. King would say shame on us for not speaking up and for not seeing through spiritual eyes the plight of our fellowman. I believe he would be appalled at what we sit quietly by and accept in our churches and our communities. As a dear friend put it “There is no right reason for doing wrong” To our leaders, “there is none so blind as them who will not see.” Mathew Henry and ” “those who have eyes and see not, and those who have ears and hear not” Jeremiah 5:21 NKJV

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