Monday was Martin Luther King Day, an official holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. A very official holiday, and one on which all government offices and the great majority of businesses are very careful to do nothing, lest by doing something they might show disrespect ot Dr. King. Yes, I think we can agree that Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of the most widely loved, admired, and respected Americans in living memory. He has a brand new monument on the Mall in Washington and countless smaller monuments and events dedicated to him around the country.
Yet there’s one thing that’s missing from our honor of Dr. King: any significant focus on what he actually wrote and said. Typically, if a society honors and celebrates an individual, it will also widley distribute the speeches, writings, and other works of that individual. In the case of America and Dr. King, a few journalists will quote a few snippets from the ‘I Have a Dream Speech’, but most Americans will never hear anything more than that from the man himself.
Why should that be? Partially because he was too Christian, and real Christianity is outlawed in some places and strongly discouraged in others. How many people even know that his full title is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr? Any public school teacher who actually read one of King’s sermons–or worse yet, forced students to study it–would soon be looking for a new job. the New York Times may claim to print “everything that’s fit to print”, but it will be a long time before they print a full-length sermon, and much of King’s best writing was in sermon form.
And partially because King’s ideas are too disturbing to the current social order. The thing was that King didn’t restrict himself merely to fighting laws that discriminated against blacks. Rather he laid forth a moral vision and a call to battle against all forms of injustice. That included economic injustice as well as political. Hence we’ll here little about what King truly believed. With that said, I’ll wrap up with some of the best parts from his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
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.
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.