I had an Ethics professor in seminary, Ed Long, who gave us a hypothetical question to ponder. I can no longer remember for sure if it was an essay on an exam or just a classroom conversation, but it's stayed with me for all these many years since. The question was, if you were MLK and had been asked by Lyndon Johnson to join the Cabinet as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare - would you have accepted the position? Why or why not?
Ed wanted us to wrestle with how you best effect change. In the case of a seminary classroom, he was asking future clergy to think about the Church and its relationship to the larger society. Where does the Church stand, and what is gained (and lost) when you become part of "the system?" Conversely, what is gained and lost when the only strategy for change is to stand on the outside and protest?
How to be "salt and light and yeast?" By getting more Christians into government? Or by recovering the prophetic voice and challenging the powers-that-be to "let righteousness flow like an everflowing stream?" Of course the answer is probably "both" or "it depends" which is why it remains, for me, such a great question.
But surely King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail remains profoundly relevant not only in getting clearer about the ways that King himself might have answered Ed Long's question, but about how we, too, can wrestle with these issues today There is a tendency that I see in myself (that clearly those whom King addresses in this letter also had) to confuse "keeping the peace" with being "instruments of God's peace." To engage in the latter means that we cannot get to peace without justice, and you cannot get to justice (and reconciliation) without some conflict along the way. "Crying peace where there is no peace" is not the way forward. These words, then, on the occasion of his birth, still seem relevant to me.
One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: "Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?" The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham 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 Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. 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 segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro 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."