The Time Is Always Ripe to Do Right: On the Commemoration of Martin Luther King Day

Every year on Martin Luther King Day I read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” addressed to white clergy throughout the United States who were advising against, calling for a scaling back of, or otherwise subverting Dr. King’s efforts at securing fuller equality and dignity for Southern blacks. White clergy were, by and large, reluctant to see the racial tensions of the country further charged. As such, they were not the champions of the country’s ongoing renewal but instead champions of preserving the status quo and curtailing tension.

Tension gets a bad rap. Tension is a social sin—it certainly was in the minds of those white clergy who failed King’s hopes and tacitly (or even outright) supported King’s opponents. Tension has been, arguably, the chief concern of every religious resistance to religious renewal: the Sanhedrin’s concern for social upheaval inspired by Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry; the opponents of Moses in the desert who wanted to return to the stability and security of slavery in Egypt rather than continue the pursuit of God’s promised land; the state-sponsored church in Nazi Germany that kept the peace rather than confront the idolatrous and genocidal assertions of Hitler’s government. Tension isn’t bad; there are cases in fact where it is good. Read Dr. King’s letter to his fellow clergy with that in mind, and you’ll never sit on your hands or accept an unjust status quo ever again.


I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. . . .

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." . . .

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 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.


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