Document Type


Publication Date



There is a part o f Martin Luther King, Jr. 's Letter from Birmingham Jail that always catches me up short, and which I now think o f as at the heart o f the essay: not King's civil disobedience, not his claim that an unjust law is not a law, but his anger at the character he termed the "white moderate." 1 It was bad, King said, when the public called him and his allies "niggers" and when the police hosed them down in the street. But what really pained King was that so many well-meaning whites stood by and did nothing. In fact, it was to these people that King was really addressing his letter.

I remembered this part o f King's letter again when reflecting on the AutoAdmit controversy-another controversy not without its share o f racial epithets. I was pretty much a bystander to the whole thing. I wasn't the target o f any vicious postings; I wasn't threatened, not personally, nor was my race or gender targeted. I didn't post anything on myself (vicious, virtuous, or otherwise). Indeed, I hadn't really heard o f AutoAdmit before the controversy erupted.

For most o f the drama, then-from the initial outrage, to the e-mail discussions and the meetings (none o f which I attended) and then to the various scattered but coordinated responses-I was off to the side and off the stage, neither a victim nor an author o f the threats. I felt happy playing that role, happy to let things pass me by.

But then I thought again about the white moderate. And I saw how the white moderate played a role in the civil rights movement akin to the role I played in the AutoAdmit controversy. They were bystanders, and so am I. The situations are not exactly the same, but the parallels are sobering: Had I been in that generation I might have been a white moderate, and I might today be a white moderate o f a different, but related, sort.