Martin Luther King Jr’s Warning about Liberals and the Poor Peoples’ Campaign

New Orleans   By favorite passage from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written April 16, 1963 is worth remembering on this day when we are confronting blatant racism from the White House, obfuscations and fabrications from US Senators Tom Cotton from Arkansas and David Perdue from Georgia who suddenly rushed to his defense curing an earlier memory loss about President Trump’s remarks, and the quandary of so many who are trying to find sure footing, and unlike the Senators haven’t lost their memory or integrity.

King’s passage was pointed, when he wrote,

“First, I must confess that over the last 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 the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er 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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

I thought of his words often when ACORN was under attack and deserted by so many allies and friends some years ago. I also thought of this passage as I listened to discussion recently by some organizations and activists about participation in the latest version of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, planned for this spring and summer at the 50th anniversary of the first campaign convened by King, the SCLC, and others.

The question under debate went to the heart of the call for a “moral crusade” and civil disobedience in the coming campaign. Organizations and others were uncertain in their response, because they were confused at this stage in the planning at the lack of available details that would focus the campaign. Would there be action against the attacks on the poor or in the words of one minister, would the local events of the campaign just be “pep rallies?” Some were hopeful that the platform of the campaign would be more focused as more detailed plans emerged.

A more pointed critique goes to the heart of King’s letter. Several people pointed out that the big event in 2018 is the midterm election and the organizing focus already pointed at the prospects of flipping control of both houses of Congress. The essential argument many made was how could a campaign or crusade be effective if it lacked political content and focus. Was the campaign already suffering from a failure of will that would distract attention from the resistance witnessed in the Alabama Senate race upset? Were the good church people so often both the backbone and bane of King’s struggle also trying to dilute the impact of the campaign by appealing to morals on the spiritual side, rather than rolling up their sleeves and jumping into the more divisive grounds of hard political fights which could both protect and advance the interests of the poor?

We might fairly ask in these times, “What would Martin Luther King have done?”

There seems little doubt from his courage in the civil rights struggles, and then his opposition to the Vietnam War and his embrace of class concerns with the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, that he would not have shied from condemnation of the Trump system and leadership in the political resistance of this moment as well.