During the next week and the month of February, we are like­ly to see online posts and peo­ple using quo­ta­tions from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  A few years ago, a friend talked of read­ing the let­ter in its entire­ty.  This prompt­ed me to do the same.

The let­ter, pub­lished on June 12, 1963, is 7,000 words long, which may be why I had not read it before. Then I learned that the let­ter was writ­ten in response to a state­ment by eight white reli­gious lead­ers in the south call­ing Dr. King’s actions “unwise and untime­ly.” In the let­ter, Dr. King out­lines the neces­si­ty of the movement’s non­vi­o­lent resis­tance to laws regard­ing seg­re­ga­tion uti­liz­ing demon­stra­tions, sit-ins, and boy­cotts. He dis­cussed these actions as means to change unjust laws and estab­lish justice. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mathew Ahmann in a crowd of demonstrators at the March on Washington

The let­ter is thor­ough in defense of the actions tak­en, and its tone is right­eous. What res­onat­ed with me is that the let­ter reveals Dr. King’s deep dis­ap­point­ment with white mod­er­ates.  He wrote:

“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 Councilor 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.”

In reread­ing the let­ter a few days ago, I reflect­ed on these words and believe that his dis­ap­point­ment would remain if Dr. King were still with us. Fifty-eight years lat­er, we may focus on what has changed, but we must also exam­ine the painful real­i­ty of what has not. We must ask our­selves: how much do white folks like me val­ue main­tain­ing order ver­sus striv­ing for jus­tice? Dr. King wrote:

“We will have to repent in this gen­er­a­tion not mere­ly for the hate­ful words and actions of the bad peo­ple but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

As a white per­son who con­sid­ers her­self open-mind­ed, I have come to real­ize how lit­tle I know and under­stand.  I have become will­ing to learn, to lis­ten, to read, and to engage with oth­ers who want to do the same and the patient peo­ple who are will­ing to help us. I have come to believe that my job today is to keep lis­ten­ing, learn­ing, and grow­ing, and espe­cial­ly to not remain silent.

  • Sabrina Puckett

    Sabrina Puckett has lived in Winchester since 1989. In 2015 she retired from her work in Adult Protective Services with the State after 26 years. Since then, she has worked in Winchester in home­less ser­vices and com­mu­ni­ty men­tal health. She is a mem­ber of Better Together Winchester, Emmanual Episcopal Church, and is a mem­ber of the WinCity News and Views advi­so­ry board. Her favorite role cur­rent­ly is grand­moth­er to a red-head­ed tod­dler boy.