Martin Luther King Excoriates the Moderates

I originally looked up MLK’s Letter From Birmingham Jail because I wanted to introduce Harry Golden. He’s mentioned by name in that most stirring political document.

King is in jail and his fellow clergymen of every denomination, including the local rabbi, are urging people not to support his cause. He has become utterly fed up with ‘moderates’ and decides to really let them have it. Watch for Harry Golden. He shows up on the roll of honor.

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers,” King wrote. “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…

“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…

“In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime — the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality… The other, Jeans Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness… Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

“I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.

“I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some — such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle — have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms.

“Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as ‘dirty nigger lovers.’

“Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful ‘action’ antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.”