Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on extremism

Being branded an “extremist” today will likely devastate someone’s life.  But should this always be the case?  Let’s consider what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate on Monday, said when he found himself characterized that way.

In his famous 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, Reverend King meditated on the accusation, and – as is true about so many other things – he gave us some wise insight about the term.  He rather understandably said “[a]t first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist.”

He went on to explain that Black Americans had “many pentup resentments and latent frustrations.”  He added:

He has to get them out. So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sitins and freedom rides. If his repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence. This is not a threat; it is a fact of history. So I have not said to my people, “Get rid of your discontent.”  But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist. I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized.

Reverend King then gave us some thoughts everyone ought to consider:

“But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love? “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice? “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

“Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist? “Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist? “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience.” Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? “We hold these truths to be selfevident, that all men are created equal.”

“So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

Wow, he was so right!  And this is just one example of the brilliance of Reverend King’s intellect. In my mind, his I Have a Dream speech is the one of the most inspirational pieces of oratory I’ve ever heard.

Let’s take time to think about this truly extraordinary American and the many things he can teach us today.

(If you would like to read more, you may also find this post from last year interesting: “Pacifism and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: a relationship more nuanced than you think?” Could the extremist label be misused today?  Take a look at “Shades of Greene? How the Pentagon could brand the law-abiding with “extremist behavior”).

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