This week, we observe the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Over the past week, many communities across the nation have held observances that make people feel better about the struggle for civil rights.

Bowling Green’s observance was last Friday. And I walked out most assuredly not feeling better about the struggle for civil rights.

As a history teacher, I’ve taught King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” nearly every year. It’s rightly considered one of the most important American documents of the 20th Century — to the point where it’s one of a small handful of required documents in Advanced Placement government and history courses.

I teach it, and there are things toward which I direct the students’ attention, including his excoriation of white moderates. But it wasn’t until Friday that I really felt the intense discomfort of that statement.

Jolie Sheffer, associate professor of English and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University, delivered the keynote address at the city’s observance. Sheffer highlighted King’s focus on white moderates, in which the civil rights leader wrote “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block … is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

I found it terribly uncomfortable when she said it out loud, more uncomfortable than when I read it every year with my students. In my mind, I fought back: But compromise is what our system is built on. Consensus is critical.

And when I walked out, I had to read his letter again, which I’d encourage all of you to do. Maybe you’ll come to the same terrifying conclusion I have: King, as usual, was right.

I am, by nature, a moderate person. I dislike interpersonal conflict, I’ll do just about anything to keep the peace, and I’m not a big fan of yelling. This translates into my politics. Through my life, I tend to favor people willing to find middle ground and compromise.

What I think I failed to understand until this week, and it now strikes me as patently clear in reading the text, is that King is talking about something so much bigger: Fundamental American rights. There can’t be compromise on basic rights. There’s no middle ground between societal integration and white nationalism. There’s right, and wrong.

Too often, we view civil rights through the lens of the politics through which legal change was achieved, instead of through the lens of individual personal commitment to equality which — when done in large numbers — creates a social movement.

The moderates whom King calls out — the people who wanted incremental, gradual change — were more like me than I’d like to admit. They wanted political peace, and if that meant their fellow human beings had to wait to be treated as full human beings, so be it.

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” King wrote. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

I hate how close to home this hits me. I hate it.

Discomfort is where we find growth. Nobody ever ran a marathon doing the amount of running that was comfortable. And I think my resolution for this year will be to find the places in my life where I fail to fully stand up for my fellow man, and do better.

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