Honoring Dr. King

Every year, the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is commemorated in communities around the country. Officials gather to emphasize the importance of diversity. People participate in service days to help their fellow man. Quotes from the venerable Dr. King can be found everywhere.

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.

It is all very beautiful, meaningful, and inspirational.

There’s just one problem: it’s all just a little too nice. A little too practiced. A little too…superficial.

Particularly among the white community, Martin Luther King Day is too often a day of self-praise and hollow gestures towards justice. As if we can cram all our care into one day and thoughtlessly continue with microaggressions the next. It’s okay cause I celebrated Dr. King. I proved I am not a racist.


Too often in the white community we fail to truly grapple with the complex legacy of Dr. King and the dark history of racism in this country. We share inspirational quotes about love and brotherhood, while glibly glossing over King’s valid and harsh critiques of white privilege.

Rather than praise the great man that was, Martin Luther King Day should be an opportunity for critique and introspection. An opportunity to truly ask ourselves, which side are we on?

Consider Dr. King’s brilliant Letter from a Birmingham Jail (I especially recommend listening to the audio version here.)

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?”…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.”

As King addresses the criticism of his own actions, it’s easy to hear the critiques of today’s activism. It is too untimely. It is too disruptive. Too aggressive.

As we find these same arguments slipping from our mouths, we’d do well to remember this as the popular white response Dr. King received. King goes on:

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.

To truly honor the legacy of Dr. King, those of us in the white community should reflect on his life not with platitudes about justice, but with a critical eye to our own role in the current struggle for social justice. Despite our good intentions, are we indeed a white moderate, standing on the sidelines of change?


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