Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day to honor the life and the thought of Dr. King — a hagiographed, ignored, misunderstood, overrated, and indispensable man; one of our greatest Southern heroes; an agitator and a moral witness who gave long years of his life to the cause of the Freedom Movement, and who — underneath the television specials and the holy martyr imagery that so often serves to obscure and empty out his real, fallible, challenging, essential vision — played a vital role (together with Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and countless others) in changing the world for the better, within living memory. If he were not taken from us, Dr. King would have celebrated his 77th birthday yesterday.
Most of what I want to say today, I said last year, in GT 2005-01-17: MLK Monday. So, instead of repeating myself, I link; and having linked, I step aside for the man himself.
I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its
leadership. … I say it as a minister of the gospel, who loves the
church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by
its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as
the cord of life shall lengthen. … In spite of my shattered
dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the
white religious leadership of this community would see the justice
of our cause, and with deep moral concern, serve as the channel
through which our just grievances would get to the power structure.
I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have
been disappointed. I have heard numerous religious leaders of the
South call upon their worshippers to comply with a desegregation
decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white
follow this decree because integration is morally
right and the Negro is your brother. In the midst of blatant
injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches
stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and
— Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
We know through painful experience that freedom is never
voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the
oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action
movement that was
well timed, according to the timetable of
those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.
For years now I have heard the words
Wait! It rings in the
ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This
has almost always meant
Never. We must come to see with the
distinguished jurist of yesterday that
justice too long delayed
is justice denied.
We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our
constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa
are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political
independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the
gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy
for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to
Wait. But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your
mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at
whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick,
brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with
impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million
Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the
midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue
twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your
six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park
that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling
up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored
children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to
form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her
little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward
white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a
five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos:
Daddy, why do
white people treat colored people so mean?; when you take a
cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after
night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no
motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out
by nagging signs reading
colored; when your
first name becomes
nigger, your middle name becomes
boy (however old you are) and your last name becomes
John, and your wife and mother are never given the respected
Mrs.; when you are harried by day and haunted by night
by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe
stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with
inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a
degenerating sense of
nobodiness; then you will understand
why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup
of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged
into an abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our
legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break
laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so
diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954
outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange
and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well
How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying
others? The answer is found in the fact that there are two
types of laws: There are just and there are unjust laws. I would be
the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but
a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral
responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would
agree with Saint Augustine that
An unjust law is no law at
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine
when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that
squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a
code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the
terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is
not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human
personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is
unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation
distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the
segregator a false sense of superiority, and the segregated a false
sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the Jewish
philosopher, segregation substitutes and
I-thou relationship, and ends up relegating persons
to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically,
economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong
and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn’t
segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation,
an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?
So I can urge men to disobey segregation ordinances because they
are morally wrong.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish
brothers. First, I must confess that over the last 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 the 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
with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods
of direct action; who paternalistically feels he can set the
timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time
and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a
convenient season. Shallow understanding from people of
goodwill 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 to do this they become 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
merely a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious
negative peace, where the Negro passively accepted his unjust
plight, to a substance-filled positive peace, where 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 as long as it is
covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to
the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be
exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light
of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can
be cured. …
… You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I
was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my
nonviolent efforts as those of the extremist. … But as I
continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of
satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an
extremist for love —
Love your enemies, bless them that curse
you, pray for them that despitefully use you. Was not Amos an
extremist for justice —
Let justice roll down like waters and
righteousness like a mighty stream. Was not Paul an extremist
for the gospel of Jesus Christ —
I bear in my body the marks of
the Lord Jesus. Was not Martin Luther an extremist —
stand; I can do none other so help me God. Was not John Bunyan
an extremist —
I will stay in jail to the end of my days before
I make a butchery of my conscience. Was not Abraham Lincoln an
This nation cannot survive half slave and half
free. Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist —
We hold these
truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. So
the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of
extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be
extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of
injustice–or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? In
that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill, three men were crucified. We
must not forget that all three were crucified for the same
crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality,
and thusly fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ,
was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose
above his environment. So, after all, maybe the South, the nation
and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
— Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
GT 2005-01-17: MLK Monday: this is, as I mentioned, what I wrote last year. I still kind of like it.
Austro-Athenian Empire 2006-01-15: Happy Actual Birthday: Roderick remembers King on just and unjust laws.
Negro Please 2006-01-16: Repost in Honor of MLK, Jr. Day reposts his excellent tribute from two years ago
Pseudo-Adrienne 2006-01-16: Remembering Him:
Never forget them, never forget him, and never forget what he struggled and died for. The dream that we would live in a color blind society and there would be racial equality. How far have we come? Or was Dr. King’s dream unfortunately just that, a dream, and therefore– given America’s ugly history of perpetuating racism and even sexism and other forms of bigotry sanctioned by the law– too fanciful to achieve. Nonetheless, the man was on one of the twentieth century’s greatest orators and noble leaders, and symbols of justice, racial equality, and freedom.
Chris Johanesen 2006-01-16: King’s Dream Still a Dream:
Every Martin Luther King Jr day, whites all over the nation drag out King’s 1963 I Have a Dream, speech and pat themselves on the back about how far we’ve come as a just society. I suggest we try one of his other speeches for a change, Where Do We Go From Here?, from 1967:
I’m not saying we haven’t made progress since 1967–we surely have–but I would argue that we still have a very long way to go before we get anywhere near to realizing Dr. King’s dream.
Black Looks 2006-01-16: Martin Luther King Day: a wonderful, meditative photo of King, and a pointer to further discussion:
The legacy of Martin Luther King is discussed in this weeks Black Commentator. The promised land and why we are still waiting by Anthony Asadullah Samad.
Echidne of the Snakes 2006-01-16: Messages from Martin Luther King remembers him through his words, including:
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter, and
Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
Ed Brayton, Positive Liberty 2006-01-16: Martin Luther King’s Dream:
… I cannot listen to King’s I Have A Dream speech without getting goosebumps. It is one of the most inspirational speeches you will ever hear …, made more so in my view because of his invocation of the Declaration of Independence as a promissory note. … I can’t even read those words on a page without getting goosebumps. American history, as I have often said, is largely the story of perpetually extending the principles found in the Declaration to cover more and more people. It should have been enough 230 years ago to cover everyone, but change is slow and sometimes it takes a long time for the true implications of our stated principles to rise to the top. It rose through the bravery and sacrifice of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and so many others, through the bravery and sacrifice of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and so many others, just as today it continues to rise through the efforts of millions of people to bring equality and liberty to so many gay Americans who are still denied the basic dignities that the rest of us take for granted. Let freedom ring, indeed.
Dr. B’s Blog 2006-01-16: Lest you thought I forgot:
The struggle continues!
David T. Beito, Liberty and Power 2006-01-16: King, Marx, and Statism:
Last January, I put up these statements from Martin Luther King, Jr. in his book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story published in 1957, but they are well worth repeating …
This deprecation of individual freedom was objectionable to me. I am convinced now, as I was then, that man is an end because he is a child of God. Man is not made for the state; the state is made for man. To deprive man of freedom is to relegate him to the status of a thing, rather than elevate him to the status of a person. Man must never be treated as means to the end of the state; but always as an end within himself.
to the barricades 2006-01-16:
The speech that unfortunately never loses its relevance: Martin Luther King Jr, Beyond Vietnam.
Christine C., PopPolitics.com 2006-01-16: Remembering MLK, in Words and Images:
I’ve just returned from lunch with a former priest from Chicago who marched in Selma and Montgomery with Martin Luther King Jr. He vividly recalled the hoof marks embedded in the Capitol lawn from police horses brought in to scare the marchers. He spoke of receiving King’s blessing before kneeling on the first two steps of the Capitol in prayer — a prayer that had to be negotiated with police, as the group was prohibited from moving even one step higher (though one priest suggested they make a break for it and run to the top). Driving between Montgomery and Birmingham in a convertible with black and white priests, they were stopped at a highway roadblock. They were eventually let through, but the fear he felt that day is still evident, more than 40 years later.
Fighting for a Lost Cause.net 2006-01-16: We’re still killing our prophets quotes Stephen Oates’s biography, telling the story of King’s final hours, memorial, and funeral.
Frank Newport, Gallup Polls 2006-01-16: Martin Luther King Jr.: Revered More After Death Than Before offers some interesting statistics about how King was thought of at the time and how he is thought of today. You’ll also find some interesting statistical grist for the mill if you want to think about the politics of popular
admiration. It also ought to remind you that, in the midst of all the very public demonstrations of affection for King from the white moderates and even the hard Right, how genuinely challenging and polarizing his struggle — against racism, and poverty, and imperial war — was. (And still is, when it is actually taken seriously.)
Remember Segregation: a vivid memorial to Dr. King and the victims of segregation in the Jim Crow South
Slate 2006-01-16: Zoom In: Celebrating Martin Luther King, a retrospective photo essay.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project features printed volumes, electronic copies, and audio and video files of many of King’s essays, sermons and speeches.
It’s astonishing to realize that everything Dr. King was a part of, and everything he spoke out against, struggled against, and, in some tremendous cases, defeated, was happening while my parents were in college, just about 40 years ago. To think of what Dr. King’s efforts, and the efforts of the countless heroes–those whose names we know and the thousands of ordinary people who haven’t made it into the books or the teevee specials–have meant for the world in those few years. Yes, we are living through dark days, but think of what it was like just within our memory or the memory of our parents. As Dr. King put it:
Let us remember that the arc of the Universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
I hope so. Happy MLK Day, y’all.