Column: Martin Luther King Jr. had a few words to say about calls for ‘civility’

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington in August 1963, four months after writing his "Letter From Birmingham Jail."
(AFP/Getty Images)

The Red Hen affair continues to percolate through our national discourse. On the surface, the question is whether White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders should have been allowed to continue a restaurant meal in peace, rather than being asked to leave the premises at the behest of a serving staff who considered themselves targets of discriminatory administration policies she promotes in public every day.

On a deeper level, however, the issue is how best to effect social and political change when those in power ignore the needs of the powerless and defend their actions with a bodyguard of lies and deceit.

And so we end up with a discussion about “civility.” It’s all right to protest and complain, it’s said, but can’t the protesters do so with more tact and politesse, like the protesters of an earlier, golden era?


I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was ‘well-timed’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly.

— Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., 1963

On Monday, former presidential advisor David Gergen, a mouthpiece for all that’s anodyne and soporific in politics, made this very point on CNN. “The anti-war movement in Vietnam, the civil rights movement… both of those were much more civil in tone,” he said.

Gergen is 76, so obviously he lived through both periods. It’s proper to ask: What planet was he living on at the time? Not only were these periods of dramatic, sometimes violent upheaval in American life, but they were perfect examples of how change doesn’t come about until the debate moves beyond “civility.”

Fortunately, we have a guide to the debate, penned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

Published in August 1963, while King was imprisoned for his role in a campaign of marches and sit-ins in Birmingham, Ala., the letter was a direct response to a plea by eight white clergymen for what amounted to, yes, civility. They didn’t use that word, but they called upon King and the city’s black community to abandon the protests and press their cause “in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”

As Taylor Branch recounted in “Pillar of Fire,” the second volume of his magisterial history of the civil rights movement, King vented his fury against the pastors’ complacency on scraps of blank paper smuggled into the jail by his visitors, and instructed that the result be reassembled and typed for distribution to the world. The result is a seminal document of the civil rights movement and perhaps the most eloquent defense of direct action in the face of injustice ever written.


The locale of the protests was what King called “the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,” with an “ugly record of police brutality… known in every section of this country.” Birmingham’s black community had met with local businesses and obtained promises of nondiscrimination in return for halting demonstrations, and seen those promises broken. They staged their protests and sit-ins for Easter week, knowing that it was the heaviest shopping period of the year outside of Christmas. The clergy complained that this made the demonstrations “untimely.”

King thundered back, “Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was ‘well-timed’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’...This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’”

The harvest of waiting was inaction, he wrote. “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” The goal of nonviolent direct action, he wrote, was “to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

Addressing the rule of law, that constant mantra of Trump administration officials who flout the law at every turn, he offered a gloss on St. Augustine’s distinction between just and unjust laws: “An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal…. We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’”

Finally, he took direct aim at the clergymen’s pleas for order. The civil rights movement’s greatest obstacle, he wrote, was not the Ku Klux Klanner, but “the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice;… who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.’”


The protesters who disturbed the restaurant outings of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and before her of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and White House advisor Stephen Miller, aren’t part of an organized campaign, and don’t have a leader like King to guide them. But they have his words to give them strength.

Their purpose certainly is just. On the border, the Trump administration has been turning American principles of humanity and inclusion on their head. It was committing violence against children and their families with impunity, until protesters rose up and exposed the horrors being committed in America’s name.

Now the protests are being brought directly to the perpetrators and defenders of these policies. None of the targets has been physically attacked, but a tension has been brought into their daily lives — “creative tension,” King might have called it, “that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understandings and brotherhood.”

Although Trump has claimed to roll back his border policy, no one should think that these public demonstrations of opposition will have an immediate and significant effect. As Branch recounts, King’s letter at first fell on deaf ears. None of the white clergymen to whom it was addressed responded. Newspapers didn’t report on it. At a press conference a few days after its release, not a single question about it was directed at President John F. Kennedy.

But even amid calls for civility from the likes of David Gergen, King’s words resonate to this very day.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email


Return to Michael Hiltzik’s blog.