On being white moderates


Photo taken by one of my students at Letter from Birmingham Jail exhibit in The National Civil Rights Museum. I took students on alternative spring break trip in 2018 during 50th Anniversary of Rev. King’s assassination.

In a conversation with Southern white pastors, one said, “I want peace and don’t understand why people can’t keep everything calm like MLK, Jr. suggested.” I responded, “He wrote about the problem of “white moderates,” those who “prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” from jail. And he was peacefully standing with colleagues on the balcony of his hotel room when he was assassinated.”

When I learned about Rev. MLK, Jr. as a kid in SC, my first thought was, “I hope my dad never gets killed for preaching.” Later in childhood, I learned skin color is what made my Southern preacher’s kid life very different from the King preacher’s kids, and I’d never have to worry about my dad’s safety anytime anywhere for anything. 

It wasn’t until seminary in 2004 when I read Letter from Birmingham Jail again that I realized the calling out of white moderates and pastors was to me. It’s a call to action because white supremacy is anything but peaceful. If white moderates and pastors continue to invoke Rev. King’s words in response to current events, then I caution us to do so while inhaling his call to action and exhaling the truth of our supremacy sins. Lest we “cry peace, peace, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14)

It was while he was “gravely disappointed in the white moderate,” he declared, “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.”

Now is a time, as a white pastor, when you no longer have to wonder what you would have done/said as you woke up the morning of April 5 to the news of a murdered Black pastor and father of young kids. Make good choices. For he also proclaimed, “The time to do right is always right.”

History has its eyes on us.


(If you’ve never read Letter From Birmingham Jail, or haven’t read it enough that it regularly corrects your compass, get you a mason jar of sweet tea and go read it on your porch right now. It is imperative to extinguish the narratives of Southern white Christianity, because The Gospel is oozing with limitless liberation and love. Also, there are no white people in The Bible.)


National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, TN



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