Fifty years ago this June The Christian Century published Martin Luther King Jr.'s The Letter from Birmingham Jail. The April 17 issue focused on this anniversary, reviewing a new book out on the letter and publishing a cover article by Robert Westbrook entitled "MLK's Manifesto." It is a good article, with much good material in it. But I was specifically drawn to its discussion of moderates.
In a Century article on the silence of the southern churches, a quotation from one Alabama Baptist minister acutely summed up the moderates' dilemma: "The problem is how to lead without being appropriated by one or the other extremes which immediately destroys the effectiveness of your leadership. When thus appropriated, you are effective only with the one faction. Neither the opposite one nor the moderate group will listen to you any longer." This politics of appropriation was a pivotal feature of the racial politics of the early 1960s. . . . [King] did set out to convert or, failing that, to pressure or to neutralize white moderates by demolishing their arguments, shaming their consciences, and, not least, threatening their interests.
The letter undertook the task of demolishing the arguments of the moderates. . . . King strikes a number of poses in it, swinging between "diplomatic" and "prophetic" modes of address. But his overriding posture might, I think, be termed one of mock moderation, that is, a stance that put pay to the thinking of moderates by arguing against them in the very "patient and reasonable terms" that they fetishized. Here and there ironic barbs and flashes of overt indignation suggest the difficulties that King had in maintaining his stance. Yet it was one well chosen for the audience he imagined, hoisting them with their own petard.
Oh how the LGBT community has struggled with moderates. Finally in the last couple of years, the moderates do seem to have joined our side mostly. There are now new voices of caution and gradualism -- people who were once opposed to us who now realize they are losing and want to slow things down. How frustrating this class of citizens can be. I liked seeing King's strategy discussed. It was direct and challenging.