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Pleading for moderation in the face of injustice

Pleading for moderation in the face of injustice

Fifty years ago today, the religious leaders of Alabama published the statement that prompted MLK to write his response from the Birmingham jail.


The clergy wrote:

We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence. We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.

King responded:

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.

One moral of the story is to be careful what you sign. It is always worth asking on what contemporary issues are we playing the role of these signers to somebody else’s MLK.

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Bob Manning

I was pleased to have had the opportunity to meet and exchange a few words with both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.(1967) and Dr. Nolan B. Harmon (ca. 1992. Dr. Harmon was then about 99 years old). He seemed pleasant enough and very old school. I was reminded of his remarks over and over again at last summer’s convention as the move to moderate and finally quash meaningful statements and resolutions on Palestine and Israel took shape. On MLK’s birthday this January, who could not hear the PB’s response to “A Prophetic Challenge to the Executive Council” as “extremely unhelpful” to be anything other than an echo from the past as Bishop Harmon and seven other members of clergy called King’s movement “unwise and untimely” and only “slow, slow, slow”. . .change. . . positive investment in Palestine. . .(fill in your own action) will bring about equality and peace.

Adam Wood

Very yes.

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