Black History Month: Order v. Justice

This brief activity kicks off Black History Month by examining King's letter from a Birmingham jail in light of current events.   

What Black leader expressed the following?

"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.’"

a)  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

b)  Rev. Al Sharpton

c)  President Barack Obama

d) Malcolm X

The statement is from a letter written by Martin Luther King from his jail cell in Birmingham, AL, in 1963. The letter was in response to white clergy who had denounced the civil rights movement’s nonviolent demonstrations as "unwise and untimely." In the letter, the clergymen argued that "actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems."


Questions for students:

1. What does King mean when he refers to white moderates who are more devoted to order than to justice? 

2.  Can you think of recent cases in which some people have urged patience and order in response to nonviolence protest?  

3.  Do you think King’s arguments apply to today's protests? How? 


Optional follow-up activities:

1. Ask students to write a paragraph on whether Dr. King could have written similar words today.

2.  As homework, ask students to read the letter from the clergymen in its entirety and an excerpt from King’s letter in response. (Click here for a pdf of these.)  Write one paragraph summarizing each. Then write one paragraph in response to this question: 

  • What does this exchange of views make you feel, and why?  

Follow up with a discussion in class about how the two letters relate to recent events.