MLK: The White Moderate Is a “Stumbling Block” to Justice

Hey white moderates, you’re making the world worse.

In his well-known 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote (emphasis mine)

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.

Reprise: white moderates make matters worse.

Society is, from its very roots, unjust; racism is structural. Moderates propagate racism by pretending that racism is individual, and thus that they don’t have to actively act against it. Liberals act as though they can simply be “not racist,” arguing that it is somehow tenable to be “moderate” and “neutral” in a radically unjust society.

You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” historian Howard Zinn reminds us.

The fact of the matter is you are either actively anti-racist, or you passively propagate the racist system you live in.

In short, what MLK et al. are arguing is we don’t need white moderates; we need white anti-racist activists who challenge the structures and systems of oppression around them, who want to make something new, something better, from the roots up–and who stand in solidarity with people of color who struggle against the structures and systems that oppress them.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—one of the most important, one of the greatest, thinkers of the 20th century—was anti-capitalist, anti-war, and anti-imperialist. He recognized that all forms of oppression are related, that one cannot end any given form of oppression unless one’s struggle is intersectional and addresses them all.

They don’t teach you this in high school history classes, because it might inspire a new generation of activists to follow in his example, because it challenges the very system that people in power benefit from.

MLK was illegally monitored by the U.S. government in the COINTELPRO program. MLK was marginalized from the mainstream (moderate, liberal) civil rights movement when he came out against the genocidal Vietnam War—a war that left millions of Vietnamese dead. MLK was murdered when he was challenging the economic system responsible for the exploitation of the vast majority of the population, of the economically disadvantaged, of the working class; when he had created the Poor People’s Campaign.

Radicalism is simply the observation that slapping a new law on a problem doesn’t solve it. Western society was constructed upon white supremacy—along with capitalism, patriarchy, and cisheterosexism (what bell hooks refers to as imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy). No amount of legislation will fix that. We need a new society in and of itself.

Again, we don’t need white moderates; we need white anti-racist radicals.

This isn’t “radicalism” in the pejorative sense of the term, as synonymous with dogmatic extremism. On the contrary, this is radicalism in its actual, real definition, as a logical conclusion, as a moral necessity.

As lifelong marxist, feminist, anti-racist revolutionary Angela Davis said in 1987, being “radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root’”.

(N.B. This quote is slightly wrong, but I didn't make it.)

(N.B. The quote on this graphic is slightly wrong, but I didn’t make it.)