History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. Martin Luther King, Jr.
MLK left behind a whole lot of great quotes and I'm always afraid of using them too much for fear of turning him into Hallmark kitsch. But I think that one above is important. In fact, the sentiment is one of the important themes of his writings and seems to me to be especially pertinent today.
The Letter from the Birmingham jail reflects this feeling so well --- the frustration and near-contempt for the temporizing and incrementalism of the "white moderates" who insisted that they were on his side but that he needed to be patient. Hurry up and wait, keep you powder dry, don't be obnoxious with your demands, don't make trouble. you can feel his frustration at having the wage a battle on two fronts in his words:
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.
I'm not sure what could shake loose this complacency at this point. The system is so geared to "both sides do it" and he said/she said that there's almost no hope of making any kind of clarifying point with anything. I doubt that the non-violent protests of the civil rights movement would be seen in the same light today --- there would be sophisticated rapid response "pushback" from the right to prove that it was the white supremacists who were really the victims.
But the problem isn't just the professionalization of the right wing. It's the perennial problem that King elucidates so well in his letter: the unwillingness of the so-called moderates (today's left leaning centrists and Democratic villagers) to put themselves on the line --- their constant vigilance in policing the left against any sign of passion or colorful expression, the endless admonishments to calm down, be quiet, don't paint with a broad brush, don't speak clearly about what you see before your eyes. And in doing that they validate the idea that there is no right and wrong, that "both sides" are equally culpable, that the answer to irreconcilable principled differences is somewhere in the middle. The main result is a high sense of self-regard among the people who stay above it all and a continuation of a status quo which benefits only the privileged.
So how would MLK feel about all this today? I'm sure he would be thrilled at the progress. There is no doubt that things are far better for black people than they were when he wrote that letter. But the All American problem with race goes on, in different ways, subtle ways, once again exacerbated by the tendency of Very Serious People to ignore the effects of their "reasonable" compromises.
In this new case, the attack on public employee unions is especially worrying. The government has also been one of the prime movers in the last 40 years to bring black Americans into the middle class, providing good wages and benefits, and enabling the next generation to have the kind of social mobility that took someone like Michelle Obama from a lower middle class family all the way to Princeton. The reason this happened was because the public employee unions insisted that the government was not allowed to practice the kind of subtle racism that pervaded the private sector (and still does to some extent) and went out of its way to recruit minorities. And it worked.
I'm not arguing that the assault on public employees unions is only about race. It's complicated. America's relationship to unions is as complicated as its relationship with race. But it's part of it. And it's being exacerbated once again by well-meaning liberals who fail to see the deeper meaning, namely that the destruction of these unions and the denigration of teachers and other public employees will result in a huge hit to racial minorities.
But enough of that for today. It's really a time to celebrate Martin Luther King's achievements, without which we wouldn't be talking about black people losing jobs in the public sector because they wouldn't have any jobs in the public sector.
This is the traditional song for this day and it expresses our feelings about him and what he died for well, I think: