I have the dumbest question: is the MLK "white moderate" part well known
June 24, 2020 12:51 AM   Subscribe

Don't shout at me. I'm not American. But this question just came to mind. I would kinda assume that it's part of the curriculum in the US? Anyway the context is that it's one of the most powerful and eloquent and straightforwardly true things I've ever read. I actually remember reading it for the first time right now. I got tears in my eyes.

And I'm a white dude living at the other end of the world from America. I have a beard and sunglasses as you can see from my profile pic and I played in a metal band! I'm supposed to be a tough guy! And I had tears in my eyes when I first read it. So I just wanted to ask if it's well known. I know it's not really a good question!

Just in case, this is the text I mean:

"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."
posted by Pyrogenesis to Education (27 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
See also Nina Simone's Mississippi Goddamn: "Don't tell me / I tell you / Me and my people just about due / I've been there so I know / They keep on saying 'Go slow!'"
posted by Paul Slade at 1:21 AM on June 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The most commonly taught and well known writing of Martin Luther King Jr. in the US is the I Have a Dream speech. Little kids learn about that speech in elementary school and just about every single person who has gone to school in America can quote from it.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail (the source you're quoting from) is probably Dr. King's second most well known work, and it is very frequently (but not universally) covered in American high school level history classes; America doesn't have a standardized national curriculum. It was certainly included in a popular anthology that my high school class was assigned. That said, it doesn't have the "iconic" stature of some other important American history writings, and that particular passage is not the most famous part of it -- more well known is the quote "justice delayed is justice denied". I'm sure many many people were assigned to read the paragraph that you quote at one point in high school and then forgot about it.
posted by phoenixy at 1:28 AM on June 24, 2020 [16 favorites]

I second phoenixy. Your question is good. I was assigned "Letter From A Birmingham Jail" in a Southern California high school during the era of the Rodney King protests. We definitely never focused on the white moderate part or even on the political ideas in it, but more generically on the eloquence of the language.
posted by johngoren at 1:45 AM on June 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

FWIW I have seen parts of this letter, or maybe paraphrased, circulated quite often on social media in the past month or so. Some version of this.
posted by like_neon at 2:00 AM on June 24, 2020

A data point: White female. Took AP US History in the mid-90s, scored well enough on the exam to achieve 9 college credits, have never seen nor heard of the piece you're quoting. (Also HATE dry history curricula, especially as taught by a football coach, as a result, so there's that. Why were literally ALL of the history / social studies teachers in my high school also football coaches?)
posted by stormyteal at 2:40 AM on June 24, 2020 [11 favorites]

Same experience as stormyteal, only I took APUSH in 2004/05. Never seen or heard this piece that I can recall, and my teacher was also a football coach.
posted by firei at 4:20 AM on June 24, 2020

I'm in my early 30s, I think I became aware of that specific passage when the BLM movement first started, so 2013? Prior to that, I think I could have told you that Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written by Dr Martin Luther King Jr but not anything else about it.

I do think it's possible that I read it pre-BLM and just didn't really understand it or have the context to understand how powerful it is, and therefore didn't register it. Nearly positive that we didn't learn it in my rural public high school though.
posted by geegollygosh at 4:37 AM on June 24, 2020

Best answer: Grew up in Georgia in the 90s, went to a small private school. I believe there was a picture of MLK in an elementary school social studies book. When my school finally decided to make MLK Day a holiday (I think I was in high school, 2000-2001), I remember some of the teachers actually got pissed off. So no we did not read or learn about this in school.

However this paragraph is extremely well known today among woke liberal circles. I would be very surprised to learn that one of my friends had not read it before, just based on how ubiquitous it is on the socials in January. I think I probably remember reading it for the first time about 7-10 years ago, which also tracks with me falling in with a higher quality social group.
posted by phunniemee at 4:42 AM on June 24, 2020 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I teach high school history in Florida but not US History. Students generally remember a *shockingly* small amount of the content they are taught. Most of the intelligent students will be able to tell you that he was an influential black Civil Eights leader. He was non-violent, he made the “I Have a Dream” speech, he was assassinated. That’s about it. Very few will know more than that.

You’re talking about kids born in the mid-2000s who don’t remember a president before Obama. The 1960s are 40 years before their birth. It’s ancient history to them - they don’t connect it to contemporary times, although hopefully the BLM movement will change that a bit.
posted by gnutron at 4:54 AM on June 24, 2020 [14 favorites]

I think I read "Letter From A Birmingham Jail" in high school? I mean, we read Howard Zinn in my AP History class, so chances are good. Regardless, I had forgotten about this passage until it began circulating online several years ago. I agree it is not well-known to most white Americans.

At any rate, I think I'll take this post as a sign that it's time for a reread.
posted by toastedcheese at 6:03 AM on June 24, 2020

Best answer: In my US mid-Atlantic high school in the late 90s, we studied “I Have a Dream” in history class, and studied “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in English class alongside the Gettysburg Address as examples of great American speechwriting/rhetoric. So we looked at the passage you quote for its effectiveness/persuasiveness to the white audience who would have read it in the paper (and it was extremely effective—many white people of the time had the same reaction you did). We learned the history of MLK writing it on scraps of newspaper (I think?) from jail, but not much else about the context. I don’t think we even discussed why he was arrested or the implications of that.

In college I took a history class specifically about the civil rights movement and that went into much much more depth about the context, including about how the class and age divides between movement leaders made it even more transgressive for MLK to publicize his arrest, which tore down a perceived boundary between the student activists who were willing to risk arrest (portrayed by the white press as dangerous) and the religious leaders, who to that point had avoided arrest (portrayed by the white press as more reasonable/upstanding). If you’re interested in all the background, I recommend Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters trilogy, which is as detailed a series as I’ve ever read on the MLK period of the movement. It is fascinating.

You might also enjoy MLK’s third most famous work, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” This is often taught as what the future might have looked like for MLK, because it was part of a more explicit push by him to fight poverty, but he was killed only days later. You see this sermon referenced by campaigns to up the minimum wage in the US (Fight for $15) and quite often by Rev. William Barber and his Moral Mondays movement. It’s also interesting because it represents a through-line of explicitly religious influence in the movement: it draws heavily from a very famous sermon by an earlier figure in civil rights history, Rev. Vernon Johns’ “Transfigured Moments.”

I don’t think this is a dumb question at all! I think we are almost still too up-close to MLK’s time to understand just how influential he was and will be on shaping the US. That this passage still rings so true today is a sign we’re still in the grips of the same fight and when you read the more detailed history of the movement you see echoes of it everywhere still.
posted by sallybrown at 6:10 AM on June 24, 2020 [11 favorites]

Best answer: The I Have a Dream speech was filmed and was part of The March on Washington, a major event broadcast live, and as commenters above have noted the visuals and audio are truly iconic parts of every conceivable US history curriculum. But I'm not sure I've ever heard King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail even read aloud in a recording. Until today while reading about it to answer this question, I didn't even know Letter from a Birmingham Jail was a response to another document, A Call for Unity.

However, I do know that it's studied for its persuasiveness and as an example of great argumentative writing in English classes. That said, I don't think I know anyone other than people specifically studying the civil rights movement who would recognize that text outside the context of a classroom, or perhaps something on Instagram on Martin Luther King Day or during Black History Month.

Sadly, though, I think the real answer to your question is: non-Black Americans don't recognize it because until about four weeks ago, non-Black Americans, in particular white people, could simply ignore the nation's history of slavery, Jim Crow and racial discrimination with virtually no impact on their lives. I'll confess that I used to consider myself really news-aware and well-read in American history, especially from a left/anti-racist perspective, and only as an adult, and in particular since Trump's election, have I purposefully diversified my media and reading and learned how segregation robbed me (a white person), and my parents, and their parents, and their parents before them, of the truth of my nation's history.
posted by mdonley at 6:17 AM on June 24, 2020 [6 favorites]

I grew up in the U.S. and this is the first time I’ve read that. However, I have encountered a version modified to fit all repressed people as a pretty central tenet of the Unitarian Church I attended. Unitarian churches vary a lot though so I can’t tell you how common it is.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:21 AM on June 24, 2020

Went to high school like two miles from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (where MLK was the pastor during the bus boycott) in an advanced college-prep program. Did not learn about this piece of King's writing until adulthood.
posted by mccxxiii at 6:53 AM on June 24, 2020

I'm from the US. I think as a general rule, if you're not black you probably know that passage if you or your friends do racial justice/antiracism work but not otherwise. I agree with everyone who says that a lot of students are assigned Letter from a Birmingham Jail but not in an in-depth, passage by passage way where they'd be encouraged to remember that part.
posted by capricorn at 7:01 AM on June 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone. Although your replies make me feel sad... and particularly, when sallybrown wrote that

"I don’t think we even discussed why he was arrested or the implications of that."

I had to take a double take right now because I too had no idea why he was in prison. But the particularly sad and ridiculous thing is, I just hadn't even thought that there should actually be stuff like charges for a crime, justice etc. I was basically, because he was fighting for civil rights, of course he was just randomly thrown in prison for no real reason. That was my basic unthinking assumption. And that's just fucked up.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 7:16 AM on June 24, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: When you go more in depth with this history, it makes clear how much of a strategic genius MLK was, as well as how much strife there was within the movement about tactics. There were local activists versus “outsiders” (as people tried to paint MLK), the student leaders who pushed the envelope versus the older pastors who lead SCLC, the sons of wealthier families within these factions (like MLK and Julian Bond) versus the activists who grew up very poor like John Lewis and James Forman. There were important movement figures who thought embracing and publicizing arrest as a form of protest (as opposed to lawsuits and boycotts) would destroy the movement by making it look too radical. And MLK was a fairly young man with a famous pastor father he held in high esteem who very much disapproved of anything that might bring the “wrong” kind of attention to his son, jail definitely being one of those things. During MLK’s work on the Montgomery Bus Boycott when he first started coming to nationwide attention, he was on trial for some kind of ginned-up tax violation that could have landed him in prison for years. Violating the law, for him, was a serious threat. So his and SCLC’s choice to embrace jail as a form of nonviolent protest, and then write Letter, especially in response to some of the shame that “upstanding” racist white religious leaders tried to heap on him as an “outside agitator,” was a huge risk.
posted by sallybrown at 7:41 AM on June 24, 2020 [6 favorites]

My partner teaches "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" at a college level and I think for many of his students it's the first time they are encountering it. He teaches it both as a piece of persuasive writing (he's in an English department) and as a piece of political speech.

I grew up in Canada where MLK and anti-racism in the US are not part of the high school social studies curriculum - I don't remember talking about the 1960s a lot except for 1967, when Canada got a Constitution of its own. We talked about the underground railroad a bit because one terminus was in Canada, but everything I have learned about chattel slavery and white supremacy has come since I have been an adult living in the US.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:58 AM on June 24, 2020

Response by poster: Phil Och’s “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.”

Ok this is goddamn brilliant. "One of the shadiest is the liberal." :D
posted by Pyrogenesis at 8:30 AM on June 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

This is going to vary a lot by region; there is no set history or literature curriculum in the US. The advanced placement exams (optional for HS students to get college credit) are inequitably distributed, and in general, tend to focus on pre-20th century studies, with minimal time devoted to anything but the shenanigans of property-owning white men.

As another datapoint, I graduated from a magnet high school in a very liberal area in 2003, having taken AP US History, AP Literature, and AP Government, and went on to major in Comparative Literature in college, and I did not find "A Letter from Birmingham Jail" until 2017, when I was trying to find something that would shut up the both-sides dogwhistlers after the Nazis and neo-Confederates invaded my hometown.
posted by basalganglia at 10:07 AM on June 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Civil Rights are taught in AP Government in High School and A Letter From Birmingham Jail is one of the documents used. I think any course covering Civil Rights would also cover this document but most people don't remember everything they studied in school.
posted by Polychrome at 10:38 AM on June 24, 2020

I was born in the late 70s and never learned this in K-12 school. It was not until I was in an Ethnic Studies class as an adult that I was assigned to read Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I have no doubt it was due to the real talk about white people tone policing the Civil Rights movement that we didn't hear about it in school.
posted by soelo at 11:33 AM on June 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

To put in another thing people don't realize but should is the contribution of Baynard Rustin. In fact, the teaching of MLK, can really minimize the massive contribution of the women and, in Rustin's case, gay, activists. MLK wasn't the sole genius in the movement, it was a movement.

I know about that letter from anti-racism work but wouldn't have remembered it from my formal education at all.
posted by lab.beetle at 11:53 AM on June 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

My south western Virginia small town AP US History class went like this. Sit down, start copying down the outline from the blackboards circling the room. Bell rings and Mr. M stands up and just starts talking and you furiously take notes. Bell rings and he erases the part of the outline that's been covered, breaks out his note cards and starts putting up more outline. I *think* we had a textbook and maybe had to read a few bits here and there, but it was really just Mr. M lecturing. Probably the hardest class in high school. He also taught freshman World History the same way (he had those double high pull down blackboards).

We might have gotten to reading MLK in AP US Government, but I don't actually remember much of that class.

For the most part, the AP classes were to be able to pass the AP exams and hopefully make it easier for you to go to university. Not so much for nuanced discussions of any particular bit or piece.
posted by zengargoyle at 11:58 AM on June 24, 2020

We studied "Letter from Birmingham Jail" at my 1990s high school in suburban Minneapolis in two different classes. In US history we had a pretty in-depth discussion about why King was jailed and the context surrounding his writing. I also remember doing a rhetorical analysis of the letter in an English class. These were both AP courses, though, so I doubt if every student at my school had a similar level of exposure.
posted by theory at 2:40 PM on June 24, 2020

Adding on also that most mainstream education about the Civil Rights movement basically focuses on MLK, Jr., Rosa Parks, and maaaaybe (MAYBE) a brief mention of the Black power movement, such as Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, and the Black Panthers.

What is virtually never covered are a lot of the behind the scenes organizers who were essential to the movement. For example, Rosa Parks is often framed as "she was just tired one day and didn't give up her seat" which erases her years-long training alongside organizers. I never began learning about Ella Baker or Bayard Rustin or A. Philip Randolph until a few years ago. Many of the lesser-known movement organizers - who often had deep ties to socialist and communist labor movements -had some fascinating critiques of more well-known Civil Rights and Black power movement figures.
posted by mostly vowels at 7:54 AM on June 26, 2020 [2 favorites]

My Alabama high school (private; Catholic) took us to the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, which (to my memory) has powerful displays about each of MLK’s seminal works, including the Letter.

It was very effective at making King's words stay with me. I didn’t realize how lucky that opportunity was.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:40 PM on June 28, 2020

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