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Let's just get one thing out of the way. Were these guys racists? Like, secretly-putting-on-white-sheets-at-night racists?
Okay, well, how about casually bigoted, drop-a-slur-now-and-then racists?
No, probably not.
Moderates afraid of the violent repercussions of sudden change?
That might be closer to the mark. There's a lot to consider.
Like how, even as he criticizes their "moderate" stance, Dr. King commends them for taking "significant stands" on the issue of segregation, and even praises Earl Stallings by name for the way he explicitly opened up his services to African Americans on an equal basis (25). He might be politely scolding them a bit, but these guys have at least some street cred with the King.
Also, Alabama in general and Birmingham in particular had a lot of white supremacists running around. The KKK and their sympathizers held government positions (we're looking at you, "public safety"), not to mention cultural influence (well, we mentioned it). There were many segregationists who went to church. There were segregationist preachers and segregationist congregations.
And in each of the eight clergyman's pews, there most likely sat at least a small sampling of unrepentant racists. To come out in public supporting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most visible morally powerful leader in the Black community and thus one of the most hated Black men in America, would almost certainly have meant danger to them and their families. As a Jew, Rabbi Grafman probably got even worse vibes from the situation.
So when you read their letter, it's understandable where they're coming from. They don't like the idea of a civil rights organization coming around to challenge local ordinances and local cultural norms. They think these race matters should be settled in the courts, where such contentious matters should be dealt with. Do they argue this because they're racists who believe in segregation? No. They're worried about violence and terror.
Unfortunately for them, the Eight White Clergymen will be remembered as those dudes upon whom (that's right: grammar) MLK laid the smack down in letter-to-the-editor format. If you think about it, though, their letter played a crucial role in this whole drama. They were the foils for Dr. King. They offered him the perfect argument to respond to, and he rose to the task.
Thanks, Eight White Clergymen.