Martin Luther King on When Not To Be Conservative

I have long been, and remain, a temperamentally conservative person. To my view, the ills created by radically overturning a social order are usually far greater than the benefits realized. And yet, there are times when justice demands change that is not gradual. One of the counter-examples I generally keep in mind to my Burkian conservative tendencies is this selection from Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, which a friend once emailed me during an extended discussion on conservative versus progressive mentalities:

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 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 had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

6 Responses to Martin Luther King on When Not To Be Conservative

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    “This letter is also a mighty fine explanation of how the greatest obstacle for pro-lifers is pro-lifers themselves.”

    Yes and no. On the level of tactics, yes, but on the level of strategy, no.

    For instance, the lukewarmness or down right opposition of some pro-lifers to using graphic images to depict the reality of abortion really disturbs me. They would put the truth away so as not to be “pornographic”, and make the ridiculous and stupid argument that to use these images is “consequentialist” – presuming that showing the images themselves is somehow a bad thing that will lead to good, when in reality, to show the truth is always a good thing.

    On the other hand, when I look at the energy that sincere pro-lifers put into political initiatives that are certain to fail, such as personhood initiatives that are popular right now, I think they are asking for too much, too soon. The majority of Americans are not ready to make the leap into recognizing full personhood for the unborn. The first of these initiatives in Colorado was defeated by nearly 3/4 of the electorate. That is a brick wall of reality.

    So it is hard to know when or how to strike, but my view is that the ground has to be prepared a little better before personhood initiatives will win the day.

  • Karl says:

    What is justice to one is terrorism to another. What is worse is that the vast majority only see what they want to see because to see things as they are might challenge their beliefs.

    To most “good” catholics, who are lost in my opinion, the issue is abortion. To me I see MLK’s “opinion” regarding white moderates, as much more applicable to the Catholic Church and its “justice” regarding divorce/annulment.

    The Church will continue to fail in its mission as it ministers to only “some” of its people and destroys others not in its “favored” status.

    The Catholic Church is a Church of “white moderates”, and we are not talking race here.

  • Pinky says:

    I made the mistake of watching some PBS yesterday, a documentary about the takeover of Attica. While the documentary sympathized with the prisoners, my reaction was the opposite to what was intended. It reminded me of just how much evil was unleashed by the radical reformers of the 1960′s and 1970′s. Was the country best served by the non-moderates?

    This inevitably raises the question of whether the moderates forced the radicals into extremism. For twenty years before King’s death, racial barriers were breaking down. If the moderates had moved more quickly, perhaps the Black Panther types would have never risen to prominence. If the radicals had moved more slowly, maybe the riots of those years could have been avoided. Maybe we got through the whole process with the least bloodshed possible. I don’t know.

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