The White Moderates King Warned AboutRoundup
tags: civil rights, filibuster, U.S. Senate, Martin Luther King Jr.
Victor Ray is the F. Wendell Miller Associate Professor in the Departments of Sociology and Criminology and African American Studies at the University of Iowa and a Nonresident Fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution.
"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the White moderate who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice."
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote these words in the isolation of a Birmingham jail, where he was imprisoned for defying a court injunction to protest the city's segregation ordinance. In an open letter, initially scrawled in the margins of a newspaper, Dr. King addressed a group of fellow clergymen who claimed to support the Black freedom movement but criticized nonviolent civil disobedience as a tactic to confront the evils of segregation.
In the letter, King differentiated between just and unjust laws, citing measures that prevented Black Americans from voting as a form of legalized injustice. At the time, Alabama, like many states across the South, was governed by a kind of racial authoritarianism that denied Black people a say in how they were governed. The clergymen's condemnation of King's activism belied their stated commitment to racial justice and provided cover for the denial of basic citizenship rights, including the right to vote.
By blocking voting reform today, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are the White moderates Dr. King warned us about.
On Thursday, Sinema said that while she backs the Democrats' voting rights laws, she would not support an exception to the filibuster's 60-vote threshold to pass the legislation. Manchin later followed suit, saying he would not vote to "eliminate or weaken the filibuster."
By prioritizing an arcane Senate rule over the protection of voting rights, Manchin and Sinema have chosen "order" over justice. The clergymen Dr. King addressed in his letter similarly elevated procedural and strategic complaints over the urgent need for racial equality, even though city officials in Birmingham secured an injunction against civil rights demonstrations and were negotiating with civil rights activists in bad faith. By claiming the movement should continue negotiating with those who were unified in their opposition to racial progress, the clergymen were effectively siding with segregation and suborning Black rights to White whims.
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