"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."
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963)
These words, taken from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," seem prescient today. In our turbulent times, it is hard to find anyone whose faith in the "wheels of inevitability" remains intact. King sent this famous letter after he was arrested for civil disobedience. His words are a direct response to local clergy, who questioned the wisdom of King's particular form of direct action. While many of us can quote King's “I Have a Dream” speech from memory, this letter sidelines the dream so that we might bathe in reality.
There is purpose to be found, though, in Dr. King's darker reflections. In dispelling the myth of inevitability, he reminds us that our personal actions can force time to be an ally in the march towards social progress. One of the most memorable parts of the the letter is King describing his impatience with the “White moderate.” King viewed the moderate's “shallow understanding” of racial injustice as a threat to social progress, perhaps a larger one even than the overt racism of his political foes.
It is not difficult to superimpose Dr. King’s picture of the White moderate onto ourselves.
On this MLK Day, I invite you to join me in a close reading of King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Whenever I read this letter, I try to reflect on the following questions, so that I might interrogate and improve my own behaviors:
1) In the last year, when have I behaved most like the White moderate? Why? There is no such thing as a perfect “ally.” Those of us who are White, and who strive to be anti-racist, have blind spots, flaws, and blemishes. Today is a good time to reflect on those challenges, perhaps even with the input of colleagues who know you best.
2) Do I have too much faith in time? Have I used my own time wisely? While King viewed the arc of the moral universe as justice-bound, that trajectory relies on acts and deeds. The older I get, the more I understand my mentors, many of whom claim that time is our greatest resource. It’s worth reflecting on when you have chosen to make time the ally of social progress in the last year.
3) Have I criticized activists for their approach to justice? King’s letter is in direct response to local clergy in Birmingham, who criticized his approach to activism. King chastises them for having a stronger critique of his actions than they do of his oppression. We need not look far to find a similar dialectic today. There will always be more people criticizing justice work than those participating in the active struggle.
4) Do I have a selective perspective on history? In the fifty years since King wrote this letter, his image has transformed from that of a controversial radical activist, to something more like a saint-in-waiting. In the 1960s, almost three quarters of White Americans had an unfavorable view of King and his work. Today our children learn that he had a dream, but do they learn that he had a bruising critique of White moderates and their complacency? Through understanding our own historical blind spots, we might develop a different perspective on contemporary fights for justice, and how we tend to prioritize popularity over progress.
There are at least a dozen other questions that come up for me when reading this letter. If you have other guiding questions to recommend, please share them in the comments section. Also, if you’re willing to share your reflections, you should leave them in the comments section as well.