MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail 2.0 (Three Excerpts)

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You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Washington. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Washington, but it is even more unfortunate that the nation’s heterosexist power structure left the LGBT community with no alternative.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Washington is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Barack Obama as president will bring the millennium to the United States. While Mr. Obama is a much more gentle person than Mr. Bush, they are both heterosexists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Obama will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to LGBT equality. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of heterosexism. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every gay and lesbian with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

I must make two honest confessions to you, my brothers and sisters. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the straight ally. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the LGBT community’s great stumbling block in its stride toward freedom is not the Family Research Council or the National Organization for Marriage, but the straight ally, 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 LGBT community 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.

Though 46 years have passed since Martin Luther King, Jr. first wrote his letter, many of the themes resonate today just as much as they did then. We are in a time when the press for LGBT equality is revealing the timidity of our society’s leaders to support us. We must recognize that continuing to wait, as we have been asked time and time again to do, only enables our continued oppression. It is the oppression of employment, housing, and marriage that propagates the hate, stigma, and violence that still cloud our lives.

To my friends and colleagues who point out that the plight of gays and lesbians does not come close in comparison to what people of color have suffered, I agree. I would not try to make such a comparison. But the themes and tactics used to maintain our oppressions have been similar. On a day dedicated to a man who stood for justice and did not have the patience to have his rights handed to him, I feel the best way to honor him is not to look back upon him in the past, but to use his words to look upon a brighter future.

The work he started has not yet concluded. We press on.

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