A Challenge For Moderates

Reading time – 4:51; Viewing time – 7:44  .  .  .


If in these darkly polarized times you and I aren’t in the same bubble, if our notions about politics, policies and what it means to be an American aren’t in lock step, try this on for size and decide then how far apart our bubbles really are.


The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday arrived and with it a number of references to his Letter From A Birmingham Jail. Oddly, I had not read it before, so I had a look and was stunned at how much of what he had to say in 1963 resonates in various ways with the America of today. He wrote,

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Do you believe that to be true? Are we interconnected? If we do harm to one of us, are we all affected?

Dr. King wrote of the clear obstacle that segregationists were to progress, the obvious discrimination they practiced, the brutality and the subjugation of an entire race of people in our country. As striking was King’s grave disappointment with what he called “white moderates”. He wrote:

“.  .  .  the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Klu 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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action;”  .  .  .  Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection”

The white moderates of King’s time have been supplanted today in part by legislators who spinelessly refuse to stand up to the infantile bully on our national playground, as he acts to harm our citizens and demeans whole continents of people. They are the representatives, senators and even the cabinet members who bald face lie for the president, leaving their integrity far behind and all of us worse off for their cowardice. This is the greater frustration and bewilderment, magnified tenfold by those who stand silent to the outrages.

We aren’t living in the Jim Crow south anymore, but Republicans across the country are using various means to take the vote away from people of color, from our young and from our elderly. Their voter ID laws and the closing of poling places and voter registration offices are today’s version of a poll tax or literacy test or having to divine the correct number of jelly beans in a jar in order to vote. These are the “people of ill will” today, the present day thieves of the right to vote and the right to be a full and equal citizen of our country.

Sadly, the “white moderates” of today aren’t standing up to these thieves. They are Americans who sit at home instead of fiercely protesting the cruelty that is in front of them. They refuse to recognize that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” They are those who live in their self-imprisoned ignorance of, “What can one person do?” They sympathize silently and then change the channel on the television, numbing themselves into apathy. They are the ones who go along to get along, who won’t make waves and who avoid conflict, even in the obvious screaming need for conflict with what is plainly wrong.

King made clear that, ”  .  .  .  freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Yet those in power refuse to listen to those being oppressed today, as our citizens’ voting rights are stolen from them simply because those who are doing the stealing are allowed to get away with it by those who don’t demand justice. There is more.

A reader of these essays wrote privately in reply to my recent post, “Leadership and the Tax Bill”, reminding me of Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus. It is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. We all know the end of the poem, but it deserves to be read in its entirety.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Every one of us save Native Americans is either an immigrant or is descended from immigrants who were welcomed by this Mother of Exiles. That means that your family wasn’t born here, but instead came here from somewhere else, surely for good reason. Perhaps their decision to leave all they had known was famine or discrimination or poverty or war and it’s quite likely your people weren’t royalty. Almost surely they were poor people, perhaps peasants, exiles. They were tired and poor and yearned to breathe free. They might even have been the wretched refuse of the teeming shore of a shithole country. If they were to try to come here today, would they be admitted? Would we lift up our lamp beside our golden door for your people? Would you allow your own ancestors to immigrate to America?

If you would, then you are not allowed to be what Dr. King called a “white moderate”, a passive presence. In fact, you aren’t allowed to be a moderate at all. If you would allow your family to breathe free here, then you must stand up for today’s immigrants.  And you must stand against the vote thieves ripping apart our democracy. You must mount the battlements and fight the loud and cruel oppressors of today.

Emma Lazarus’ voice is calling for you to take action, to lift our lamp beside our golden door.

Dr. King implores you to not be a moderate, but to stand up to injustice, because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and that includes justice for you.

At the Women’s March – Chicago 20, 2018. The woman holding this sign said that she now knows she would have been a conductor in the underground railroad, saved Anne Frank and more. She knows that she could not stand idly by in the face of injustice. I don’t know her name, but I’m grateful for her courage, her passion and for being a role model.

Your own family is calling you – counting on you – to speak up in their name, the very name you bear.

From “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brené Brown:

Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion.

Back to my comments in the Preface: What would happen if we – you and I – were to join our bubbles that we imagine to be so far apart and we refuse to be moderate?


Ed. note: There is much in America that needs fixing and we’re on a path to continually fail to make things better. It’s my goal to make a difference – perhaps to be a catalyst for things to get better. That’s the reason for these posts. To accomplish the goal requires reaching many thousands of people and a robust dialogue.

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Copyright 2024 by Jack Altschuler
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