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Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’

Joel Lesko
January 18, 2021

On this January 18, 2021, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday since 1986, it feels even more important to reflect on Dr. King's life and what he continues to stand for. For SunShower Learning, diversity, equity and inclusion is more than a business, it's a commitment to taking action for racial and economic equality and social justice. Reading about Dr. King today, I found his Letter From Birmingham Jail particularly meaningful and timely. For me, it's an important reminder about what he called "the white moderate". You can read the entire letter HERE

Below, I'm including a portion of his letter that has me thinking, especially in light of the work I'm engaged in to help organizations raise awareness and gain skills to disrupt behavior patterns of oppression and bias. In our Workshops via Zoom and our eLearning courses, we talk about the role of the bystander. We explore research that indicates most people do not speak up in the face of demeaning biased and stereotypical comments. Most will agree that becoming an active bystander is the right thing to do. And, it's not easy. It requires stepping outside one's comfort zone. Learning, decoding hidden messages and taking a risk to raise one's voice. Studies show that in the face of racial microaggressions, white bystanders can have a very real impact and change the tone of an interaction if they choose to speak up. The choice today is about the cost of being moderate and what will it take to make change. As Dr. King wrote, "The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?"


"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 Citizens’ 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. (emphasis is mine)

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.

(Edited and here's the conclusion)
I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
Martin Luther King Jr.

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