How MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Addresses the Hypocrisy of the White Moderate
The white moderate of the 1960s took the form of one Albert Boutwell. Seen by many whites and even described by Dr. King as a “much more gentle person” (para. 12) than his political opponent Bull Connor, it would seem that Boutwell would be the much better alternative to Connor’s overtly racist ideals and practices. However, King also notes that “they are both segregationists, dedicated to the maintenance of the status quo” (para. 12), thereby rendering Boutwell’s eventual victory as just as much of a loss for the black community as a Connor win would have been. No matter who nabbed the win, Birmingham would remain divided and the city’s black children would continue to receive a lesser education as a result.
The white moderate of today takes the form of one Rick Kriseman. The current mayor of the great city of St. Petersburg, the incumbent Kriseman gained a slim victory over former mayor Rick Baker in last year’s election to bring about a second term and continue making the city into a “beacon of progress,” as he stated in a speech this past March. During his time as mayor, however, that beacon hasn’t had the strongest of signals, as he has green-lighted the militarization of St. Petersburg’s police force and allowed the force to occupy the city’s black community on a day celebrating the life of their most esteemed leader. While Baker didn’t have any better of a track record — especially in regard to the LGBTQIA+ community, which was a major point of contention throughout the race — the election of either men would have merely been a victory for the status quo and a loss for the black community, which has endured decades of neglect as evidenced by the rampant gentrification occurring throughout the city.
Just beyond the realm of politics lies activism, and within activism lies a cesspool of white moderates operating under the guise of liberalism. Leaders of gun safety movements pride themselves on being “inclusive” while they alienate the only two black members of their organization by silencing their voices in favor of maintaining neutrality and preserving their relationship with the local police force. They proclaim that “the revolution will not be televised” in their interviews with Channel 9, but they couldn’t tell you with who or why the phrase originated. These leeches quote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in their Instagram captions that read “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” (para. 4) while they ignore that the vanilla chai latte that they just spent six dollars on only exists because the black neighborhood just south of theirs has been ravaged by false promises and foreign land developers. The blatant hypocrisy and shameless virtue signaling of these activists demonstrates the lengths to which many white moderates will go to prove themselves as an ally to a cause that they only support if it is convenient for them, thus undermining and holding these causes back from their potential.
Dr. King’s claim that the white moderate “is more devoted to ‘order’ than justice” (para. 23) rings just as true now as it did in 1963, and both modern politics and activism continually prove themselves to be just as full of these regressive figures as they were over half a century ago. His assertion that “lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection” (para. 23) reveals a truth in my own reality: my contempt for passive nods and empty platitudes has made it much more difficult for me to be involved with dialogue regarding either field. I write so frequently and passionately about topics of politics, activism and race because it provides me an outlet in which there is no one to answer to, no one to explain myself to, and — most importantly — no one to deliver a pretense meant to make them appear more progressive. While it may be easier to talk to a white moderate than a Klansman, I’d rather just talk to myself.