The Real Martin Luther King

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.

— Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, 1963


  1. s. wallerstein January 16, 2012 at 2:57 pm | #

    I know thy works, that thou are neither cold nor hot: I would that thou wert cold or hot.

    Revelation 3:15

  2. Patrick January 16, 2012 at 3:32 pm | #

    I would like to think that he altered his stance in the 5 years he had remaining. Without the so called “Moderate”, progress would have been a lot slower, and likely even more violent. The Civil rights act would certainly have taken longer. Nixon would have been in no great hurry to pass it. The old “give us what we want, when we want it” never works.

    • Ned Ludd January 17, 2012 at 7:17 pm | #

      Did you read the entire letter? You say that “give us what we want, when we want it” never works. This is his response:

      “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.’”

      • Miguel Fernandes January 17, 2012 at 9:48 pm | #

        Ned is right that the best reply to “give us what we want, when we want it” is found further in Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.

        I am often reminded of Dr. King’s “the time is always right to do what is right.”

        It is unfortunate that a hefty bloody tool is required to overcome complacency and apathy before people are reluctantly compelled to knowledge the suffering of others.

  3. Sarah January 16, 2012 at 5:39 pm | #

    He says that moderates are more frustrating, not that they’re more wrong. I understand how someone claiming to be on his side, but telling him that he shouldn’t expect equal rights, would be extremely frustrating.

  4. s. wallerstein January 16, 2012 at 5:45 pm | #

    Maybe I should clarify the reasons for the above Biblical quote.

    I think that here at least King’s thinking is more theological than political.

    In political terms a moderate is more helpful than an outright enemy.

    However, in Christian (and even non-Christian intuitive) moral terms, there is something profoundly disturbing about someone who is lukewarm in the face of grave injustice.

    • RKLN January 16, 2012 at 6:15 pm | #

      I agree…more of a theological perspective.

  5. Matthew January 16, 2012 at 6:56 pm | #

    I wonder if the actual change he would make today would be to criticize all of the moderates?

    • Thomas January 16, 2012 at 8:59 pm | #

      I think so, maybe the Moderate In Chief most of all.

  6. McTavish January 17, 2012 at 2:34 pm | #

    Nothing gets done without moderates whose lack of fire is noticeable. You know where you stand with the haters. The same truth applies to women’s rights. The rights of racial groups, especially blacks, and of women have been resisted on all sides, by the haters openly and by the moderates through lack of attention.

    • Privatize the Profits! Socialize the Costs! January 18, 2012 at 9:51 pm | #

      I think Corey’s intention may have been to compare King’s view of moderates with his own view of conservatives?

      Because history demonstrates that basically EVERYTHING really worth doing gets done IN SPITE OF both conservatives AND so-called moderates… because neither of these groups has demonstrated much interest in, or compassion for the less fortunate, mainly preferring to concern themselves with their own misfortunes.

      And then once a bunch of really determined liberals make change finally happen— let’s say, abolishing slavery for just one example— then all the moderates and most of the conservatives try to pretend that they agreed with it all along.

  7. Richard McNeill January 19, 2012 at 11:38 am | #

    Arousing the moderate masses requires requires communicating to individuals’ self-interest: Why does equality make life better for me? Activists who can make a splash at the shoreline find their voices drowned out in deep water. That must frustrate leaders of all ilk.

    Also, describing one party or another as promoting or resisting change makes Change appear to be a matter of choice. It is not. Change takes place in time. We can influence it, dress it up, disguise it, and deny it, but we can’t stop it or control it, but only give it direction.

    We need leaders and communicators who believe in a peaceful future with universal health care, shared prosperity, and a foreign policy that promotes the same values worldwide. Why can’t we sell that concept? Why is it unrealistic?

    Why are we more ready to follow those who preach war, famine and disease than those who preach peace, shared prosperity, and universal health care?

    Keep blogging. We may find an answer.

    • mike January 21, 2012 at 4:24 pm | #

      Well, your right I think. It is a timeline that reveals these sophisticated ideals. And remember, we’re a very young country ! !

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