By James M. Decker
Last year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I brought you an essay on Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and his frustration with inaction. This year, I want to expand on that letter in new ways, to move us forward as rural community leaders.
On April 16, 1963, Dr. King was sitting in jail in Birmingham, Alabama after being arrested for marching against racial segregation. He was given a newspaper with “A Call For Unity.” This open letter, published by eight white clergymen, essentially told Dr. King and other protestors to tone it down, seek their rights through legal channels, and wait for time to run its course. Dr. King was sick of hearing “wait,” knowing that it “has almost always meant ‘Never!’”
Dr. King called it a “tragic misconception” that the flow of time would “inevitably cure all ills.” He observed that time is merely neutral and “it can be used either destructively or constructively.” He wrote that: “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.”
Dr. King then turns to the criticism of his activity as “extreme.” At first, he was disappointed. Then he came to be satisfied with the label. He wrote: “Was Jesus not an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.’” He then named off a list of other extremists: the prophet Amos, the apostle Paul, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson.
Today I pose to you what Dr. King asked his readers: “so the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or the extension of justice?”
Throughout Dr. King’s letter, he takes issue with the white moderate. He goes so far as to state that the great stumbling block towards progress is less the Ku Klux Klan and more the white moderate who prefers order to justice, who accepts the absence of tension (a “negative peace,” he termed it) over the “positive peace” of justice. In short, the white moderate preferred the comfortable to the uncomfortable, right and wrong be darned.
The white moderates failed their African-American brethren in the 1960s. By refusing to step out of the comfort zone to help those seeking freedom, liberty, and justice, the white moderates actually enabled the immoral actions of the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk. We’ve heard many times in this country about a “silent majority,” as if it’s a good thing. I am writing today to tell you that silent majorities are rarely a good thing. A silent majority is nothing more than a group of people who are unwilling to stand up and be counted when it actually matters.
Today, I ask you: what are we doing to improve the lives of those around us in rural America? Are we acting as extremists for love and the extension of justice? Are we working through our churches, our community organizations, our businesses, and our elected positions to ensure that all of our people prosper and are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve, no matter their net worth, skin color, or religious affiliation? Are we extremists like Dr. King and Jesus? Or are we the modern day descendants of the white moderate? Do we prefer an absence of tension to a positive peace, satisfying ourselves that we are a “silent majority” hoping for the flow of time to cure all ills, while we remain comfortable and inactive?
We can use our time constructively or destructively, and if we don’t use our time at all, we’re using it destructively. Now is the time to heed the words of Dr. King: the time is always ripe to do right.
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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.