Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Part VI: Timely Activism
February 8, 2009
The following section of the Letter makes the case that we should not be terribly worried that our ideas may precipitate violence (as long as we don’t engage in violence), and that there is no time to waste in spreading the message:
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. 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. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
It is indeed a “tragic misconception of time” that prevents a lot of needed change from happening. “[T]he appalling silence of the good people” often enables many important issues to go unnoticed, though the “good people” of course get to live their comfortable lives in peace. And as one who believes that Christian values and truths are the ideal, I note that too often the excuses proffered by the inactive Christians are particularly lame.
Additionally, as an aside, note that the people who criticized MLK for “precipitating violence” have a kinship with the authors of various university campus speech codes (examples of which are provided here), all of whom prefer to avoid offending sensibilities notwithstanding the need to discuss public issues. The fact that someone might react to a message improperly is certainly no reason to censor the message.