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What Kind of Extremists Will We Be?

January 18th, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments


The life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been woven into a narrative that serves the interests of the status quo. It is not that the ways he is portrayed are entirely inaccurate, but they are misleading. Our narrative celebrates his life as a triumph of civil rights; that after marching across the Pettus bridge to Washington he gave a speech declaring “Let my people go!” and the racial divide closed. Whew. Glad that’s over with. And now we have a black president we can despise and our racial issue has been solved. Or so it once seemed.

King has been tamed like all of our heroes have been tamed. But Dr. King was not a tame man. And he was not a moderate. If he had been a tame moderate he would not have been able to concentrate enough ill will against him to warrant assassination. Dr. King was dangerous.

The first misconception is that King’s concern was focused or even mainly focused on racial justice. It is true that he entered the stage of public action in support of a movement to remove demeaning racial barriers in Montgomery. King’s activism challenged and demolished the system of Jim Crow segregation, the maintenance of a legally enforced inferior class based on race. And for that we rightly celebrate his life.

But even in the midst of that struggle his vision was greater and more dangerous. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail King writes about a conversation with his white guards where he observed that rather than opposing him poor whites should support his cause, because the system created a false sense of superiority in whites that left them content to be little or no better off than their black neighbors. Their economic and social plight was almost identical, but they were content to allow it by the logic that at least they weren’t black. Racism in America was fostered as a means of social control — of both blacks and whites. King’s vision wasn’t simply justice for black people. It was justice for everyone. That’s what made him so dangerous.

I once was lulled like many others into the false belief that because of King’s work our national racial divisions had been set on a course of inevitable solution. Yes, there was still work to do, but we were making progress. The final vision of a racially blind society was inevitable. But in the last couple of years I have been forced to acknowledge, as have many others, that my torpor only served to perpetuate injustices that have yet to be addressed. Racism may be illegal but it is nevertheless still enshrined in the hearts and practices of many, even some who deny (even with sincerity) they are racist.

Less than three weeks before he was murdered Dr. King delivered remarks that addressed the civil unrest plaguing America at that time. Here is what he said:

Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non­-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.[1]

Does it not seem that these words could be spoken today? The injustices that King fought against are still with us.

King’s ultimate goal was the creation of what he called “The Beloved Community.” The Beloved Community would consist of a world without division; all people living in harmony through the love of God (agape) as expressed in the human heart. If we pigeon-hole King into the Civil Rights box and leave him there we really don’t know him at all, and we do him great disservice.

The world has changed too little since King’s assassination. King never spoke in favor of violence, he never advocated division, he decried economic and social injustice, and he sought a world community based on true brotherhood. And for boldly proclaiming that dangerous vision he ended on the balcony of a motel in Memphis in a pool of blood. Today we see throngs cheering the extremist voices of violence and fear and exclusion and division and hate. And I’m not referring to foreign despots and jihadists, I’m pointing the finger at our own political “leaders.” It seems we have little to celebrate on the day we commemorate Martin Luther King.

But the fact that we do remember says that at some level we still value his vision. It is something still to strive for. It won’t be realized by following the fear-laden siren song of our contemporary culture, and it won’t come into existence by denying the ugliness of the world as it is. It can only be made real by opposing extreme hate with extreme love. In response to being labelled an extremist by his fellow clergymen for his desegregation efforts in Birmingham, Dr. King wrote:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?[2]

The world moves through the motivation of extremism. If we want to create the world of brotherhood King envisioned, we too must be extremists. Even our inaction is an extremist act. What kind of extremists will we be?


[1] Martin Luther King, “The Other America” (Speech, Grosse Pointe High School, Grosse Pointe, Michigan, March 14, 1968), accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/.

[2] Martin Luther King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” The King Center, accessed January 18, 2016,http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/letter-birmingham-city-jail-0.

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