In Holocaust literature, participation in the atrocities are described by types: perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. David Gushee’s assessment of the bystander is instructive, as it mirrors the moral posture of the white moderate in King’s letter: “If one is present, one is taking part. The moral issue then simply becomes a matter of moral perception – whether one is able/willing to acknowledge the moral responsibility that is intrinsic to the situation one faces.” Very few white moderates would have thought themselves to be racists, oppressors, or even indifferent to African Americnas’ plight in the mid-twentieth century. In fact, many whites believed Blacks were content living within a segregated society and appreciated white generosity. Jason Sokol summarizes the point, “White assertions of black happiness stemmed more from whites’ ‘psychological needs’ to believe in social harmony than from any evidence that such concord actually existed.” White misunderstanding of Black lives showed that little reflection of any kind, if and when it ever occurred, could fully undo the years of reflexive habits that seeped down deep into the bone and blood. Whites knew one dance, one set of steps, and they danced it, clapping on the one and the three. So, when Dr. King asked “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?” he is calling out the intention of their Christian worship. Did white Christians actually love their neighbors, or did they actually love other things – safety, security, and personal peace more?
From “Know Your Place: Helping White, Southern Evangelicals Cope with the End of The(ir) World” by Justin R. Phillips