On April 12, 1963–Good Friday–police officers in Birmingham, Alabama arrested Martin Luther King Jr for violating an order against public civil rights demonstrations. During his eight-day imprisonment a group of white ministers published a letter in the local paper expressing their support for Black civil rights as well as their conviction that King and others should work through laws and established systems instead of employing civil disobedience in the cause of justice.
In response to this letter from white moderates, King penned on scraps of paper what became known as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” This letter stands as one of the greatest works of political theology ever written by a 20th century American.
During this time, the world’s most famous evangelical, Billy Graham, offered his commentary on the demonstrations and King’s tactics. The April 27th edition of the Pittsburgh Courier included an articled titled, “Negroes Moving Too Fast? ‘Put on the Brakes’ Urges Billy Graham.”
The article quotes Graham as saying,
“They should put on the brakes a little bit.”
The article goes on to say that Graham called King “a good personal friend.” But the white evangelist still thought that “there should be a period of quietness in which moderation prevails.” In his opinion, the demonstrations of civil rights activists put in jeopardy the supposed progress being made in Birmingham.
A few months after King’s release, in June of 1963, he gave a speech at a rally in Detroit, Michigan. Historians regard this speech as the precursor to King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom later that year.
Before King entered into the now familiar refrain of “I have a dream” he uttered words that could be taken as shade toward Billy Graham’s comments about gradualism.
“Well,” they’re saying, “you need to put on brakes.” The only answer that we can give to that is that the motor’s now cranked up and we’re moving up the highway of freedom toward the city of equality, and we can’t afford to stop now because our nation has a date with destiny. We must keep moving.
Was it a coincidence that King used Graham’s exact words? Was it happenstance that his comment came mere months after Graham made the initial statement? Was King responding to someone or something else? Perhaps.
But it is also possible that King had Graham’s unsolicited advice in mind when he explained once again why Black people could not wait any longer to secure their civil rights and or drag their feet on the stride toward freedom.
King’s insistence on the “fierce urgency of now” contrasted with the approach of Graham and many other white evangelicals who urged moderation and gradualism. Later in the same speech King pressed the matter when he said,
Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of racial justice. Now is the time to get rid of segregation and discrimination. Now is the time.
The oppressed know the daily indignities of oppression and the long history of injustice they have endured. It is not the place of the privileged to set the pace for freedom. King understood this while Graham, shielded by the privileges of whiteness, failed to appreciate the depths of Black suffering and the need for immediate change.