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John W. Whitehead

John W. Whitehead

Posted January 13, 2009 | 03:37 PM (EST)

Was Martin Luther King an Extremist?


"Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: 'Too late.'" --Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King spoke truth to power, and he did so in a way few before him or since have managed to do.

A moral voice for change, King routinely railed against society's complacency and its refusal to act immediately to correct social injustice and protect freedom. His call to action and personal sense of urgency often resulted in his being labeled an "extremist." Yet while he had no shortage of enemies, he refused to back down.

In his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," written on April 16, 1963, King eloquently expressed the need for change in the face of injustice and oppression. At the time, King was serving a sentence for participating in civil rights demonstrations in one of the most racially segregated cities in the country -- Birmingham, Alabama.

King rarely bothered to defend himself against his opponents. But he refused to remain silent when eight prominent "liberal" Alabama clergymen, all white, published an open letter castigating him for inciting civil disturbance through nonviolent resistance. Thus, he put pen to paper.

The clergymen called on King the "extremist" to let the local and federal courts deal with the question of integration. King, however, understood that if justice and freedom were to prevail, African-Americans could not afford to be long-suffering. Quoting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, King responded, "Justice too long delayed is justice denied." Action, he believed, was needed immediately.

"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny," declared King. He continued:

Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern.
One may well ask, "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all."
Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.
We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was "legal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal.
It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will.
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 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 self-evident, that all men are created equal." So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love?

If we are to truly honor Martin Luther King's legacy, we must do more than pay lip service to his life and the cause for which he died. Rather, like King, we must put aside our complacency and speak out against the evils of our time. King risked his life to champion the causes of the oppressed and pressed on to the end when all seemed to be against him. If there is to be any real and lasting hope that things will turn around in America, we must do the same.

We live in uncertain times, threatened on all sides by economic crises, violence at home and wars abroad, and a government bureaucracy that is out of control. Yet all is not lost.

Average citizens, properly motivated and ready to take to the streets, can bring about change. However, it is up to you and me to make sure that King's dream of "justice for all" is more than a phrase recited by school children. If we are to honor Martin Luther King's life and legacy, we must be extremists for change and speak truth to power at every opportunity. As Dr. King instructed, "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

The time to act is now. Tomorrow may well be "too late."