Thoughts of a White American on Another Martin Luther King Day

Carla Seaquist
7 min readJan 16, 2024


On this, another anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. — one of America’s greatest visionaries who was martyred for advocating his vision of justice and equality for the Negro (as African-Americans were called in his day) — I have many thoughts.

But one thought stands out: It relates to white moderates and King’s disappointment in us.

This train of thought is prompted by rereading King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King wrote the letter from his cell, in 1963, after being arrested for leading a march without a permit — a nonviolent march — in what King calls “the most segregated city in America,” Birmingham, Alabama, adding “its ugly history of brutality is widely known.” In his letter, King brilliantly lays out, in 7,000 words, both the moral and strategic arguments for a nonviolent pursuit of racial justice. His audience? His fellow pastors — specifically, the white ones — who urged him to go slow, that now is not the time.

In readings past, it was King’s patient rejoinder to the pastors’ “go slow” plea that was my main takeaway. Too often in History, as I thought about it, the voices of the status quo counsel the visionary to bide his/her time with reform, most especially when the reform being pressed is moral. “Do the right thing”: Great idea, just don’t make me do it now! King argued that, given their 340-year history in America, justice for the Negroes was overdue:

“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…that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

But this time, what leapt out, after King’s opening frustration with the counsel to “Wait,” was his expression, at midpoint, of his disappointment with the white moderate. Apart from the bravery of calling out a putative ally, King’s analysis is incisive:

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Counciler or 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; ….who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

Again, the “not now” advice. On how it feels to hear this and more, King elaborates:

“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.”

In the 60 years since, has “shallow understanding” from the white moderate deepened? Perhaps, but has action become more, you know, active? Has solidarity become more solid? Has the knowledge that we know America needs to resolve its race problem — remove all discriminatory barriers, accord African-Americans their due respect and dignity — been converted into reality?

We know the answer is: No.

Otherwise, why is the essence of the African-American story still — still! — the quest for justice, equality, dignity, identity? Following an earlier generation of artists — James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Lorraine Hansberry — today’s African-American artists ply the same quest: for justice, equality, dignity, identity. See: the novels of Colson Whitehead, Jesmyn Ward, the late Toni Morrison; the nonfiction of Isabel Wilkerson and Ta-Nehisi Coates; the films of Ava Duvernay, Spike Lee, Jordan Peele; the plays of Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins; the art of Kehinde Wiley and Kara Walker. On one hand, such quest is ipso facto a noble one, but also it is, I imagine, exhausting and soul-crushing: petitioning to be heard, presenting one’s credentials to be taken seriously — simply to be seen — by White America.

“Selma” directed by Ava Duvernay

As a White American, I do not have to present my credentials to be seen. As a woman I do spend some fraction of my time arguing for my seriousness of purpose. But not as a human being.

Bringing this disparity home, on this Martin Luther King Day, is today’s column by Michele Norris of The Washington Post, formerly with National Public Radio. Titled “Our True Feelings About Race and Identity Are Revealed in Six Words,” Norris’ column describes how, as a “prompt to conversation,” she printed up postcards with the words — “Race. Your thoughts. Six words. Please send” — then planted the cards in bookstores, restaurants, airports, hotels. Over time, a trickle of responses became over 500,000, from all 50 states and over 100 countries.

My point here is: not Norris’ project, whose results “awed” her for their “honesty and….enthusiasm and, yes, even….grace,” which is cheering, but the very fact that the question of race and identity is still with us — another 60 years since King wrote his letter from Birmingham jail demanding racial justice. Making it — what? — 400 years (adding to King’s figure of 340 years) that African-Americans have been on their quest?

And now, prospects for resolving the race problem are….not promising. Instead of confronting once and for all our history — of slavery, lynching, lives blighted by bigotry and discrimination — now the far-right escapes into irrationality and dishonesty, subverting this legitimate quest for reckoning into “woke-ism,” denying that racism exists today, claiming that slavery had its “benefits”(!), whining that confronting our history may cause discomfort in young minds. Never mind that slavery, lynching, et al. was beyond discomfort, but ghastly, criminal, evil. What a tragedy: We have knowledge — we know we must reckon — and we have the tools, yet we won’t do it. It’s as if America is saying: Don’t make us do the right thing!

(Oh the ironies of History: It was African-Americans who put the term “woke” into wide usage in the 1930s and ’40s, as the quality of being alive to injustice and “the racially motivated threats and potential dangers of white America.” To “stay woke” was once a good thing; now, not. As Fats Waller said, “One never knows, do one?”)

Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley

As for the evolution of my racial understanding as a white American: I was about to graduate from high school when, in May 1963, I saw on TV in Birmingham, where Martin Luther King had sat in jail in April, the city’s Bull Connor sic his police dogs and firehoses on Negro men, women, even children. I knew then what I saw was evil — I felt shame — and I vowed to do something about it. I got the chance in a decade-long civil rights career, culminating as equal opportunity officer of a major American city. Now, as a commentator, I put it to my fellow white Americans whenever I can, with titles like “My Fellow White Americans: Are We about Blood Identity — or America’s Ideals?” and “White America Must Stand with Black America for Equal Justice” (after the George Floyd killing). But it is nowhere enough.

So here goes with another attempt.

My fellow white moderates: Martin Luther King was not wrong to expect an alliance between white moderates and the African-American cause. Unlike extremists, moderates are moderate because they believe in things like justice, equality, dignity. (Moderates have a surplus of dignity; now work to enable our Black countrymen to get it, too.) Moderates also, unlike extremists, operate using rationality, logic, and, true to their “brand,” moderation. But in these hyper-reactionary times, moderates need to “find another gear”: We need to confront the phony far-right’s anti-woke agenda that is keeping us from racial reckoning. Fueling our mobilization is this sobering thought: Not only does the far-right white supremacist make White America look bad, so does the white moderate who passively benefits from the status quo. Start your quest by confronting your racist uncle or neighbor who uses the n-word. Once past that marker, daring — the quality that moderates have a deficit of — becomes habitual, a regular thing, even fun.

In sum, white moderates can redeem themselves in Martin Luther King’s eyes by showing up, girding up, getting in the faces of the extremist and the reactionary, and arguing. King saw that white moderates were more devoted to order than justice. Get out of order! Argue for justice.



Carla Seaquist

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" (Vol. II). Playwright. Fmr. HuffPost.