Martin Luther King on when to act

When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his 1963 ``Letter from Birmingham Jail,'' from which we excerpt here, he was in jail for demonstrating against segregation at lunch counters and in hiring practices. He was answering a letter by eight Alabama clergymen which urged blacks not to support the demonstrations. King explained his philosophy of nonviolent resistance to oppression, inspired by the writings of Mahatma Gandhi. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the federal government the right to enforce desegregation of public accommodations and outlawed discrimination in publicly-owned facilities and in employment. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: ``All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.'' Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity. From ``Why We Can't Wait'' by Martin Luther King Jr. 1963, 1964 by Martin Luther King Jr. Used by permission of Joan Daves.

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