As tensions rise in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, yet another black victim of police brutality, I’ve noticed that some well-meaning (usually white) people have a tendency to quote Martin Luther King, Jr.
while calling for peace. These quotes often include the likes of, "Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that," or "Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon." (And seldom his far more radical statement, "A riot is the language of the unheard.")
But there’s another King quote that I find even more relevant during times like these. It’s a passage from his stunning "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," which remains one of the best pieces of writing on activism that I’ve ever read (you can find the full thing here). Back in 1963 King wrote:
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.
For those looking for more perspectives on this issue, I recommend Chauncey DeVega's “Dear White America: Please Stop Talking About Martin Luther King Jr. and the Baltimore ‘Riots’” over on The Daily Kos, as well as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Nonviolence as Compliance” on The Atlantic.
Pic: Gracie Mansion, Rev. Martin Luther King press conference / World Telegram & Sun photo by Dick DeMarsico