When it comes to the late Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s almost impossible to determine which speech, letter, or sermon of his is the most impactful. Where does one begin? His “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” sermon delivered in Memphis, just hours before his assassination? Is it the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial? What about his comments upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, saying that “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word?”
It could be the provocative “Beyond Vietnam” talk given at Riverside Church in New York in 1967, a talk that illustrates his expanding vision to combat the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism…as a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” The corpus of his work is extensive and staggering.
But for my money, it’s hard to supplant King’s 1963 defense of his nonviolent strategies, a document entitled, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Like an imprisoned apostle writing in chains, MLK used his jail cell to take his detractors to task, specifically a group of Alabama ministers, who had taken umbrage with his tactics.
Those ministers – who represented Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Jews – crafted a document entitled, “A Call for Unity,” imploring King to use “proper channels” for his protests and to cease his “extreme measures” of boycotts and demonstrations. After it was printed in the local newspaper, King drafted “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as his spirited response.
In it he accepted the sincerity and goodwill of the “Unity’s” authors, but fiercely attacked the false peace that they paternalistically peddled. It was false because they wanted rights-deprived African Americans to continue to wait for a more “convenient season.” Dr. King made clear that such waiting was an unjust reinforcement of the status quo. What was required for lasting peace and justice was to first “bring to the surface the hidden tension…bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”
It was King’s goal, always through nonviolent means, to foster this social crisis of inequality until it could no longer be ignored. Then, and only then, was systematic change possible. Only then could justice be achieved. Only then would there be peace, peace for all who were willing to have it.
Was this approach, “extreme?” Absolutely, as King penned the words that may supersede anything else written in his substantial library: “Was not Jesus an extremist for love…Was not Amos an extremist for justice…Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel…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?
“In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime – the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
When I read those words I can’t help but be captured by King as a spiritual guide, a mentor, a prophet whose words, passion, and creative, loving extremism can point us to a better future. And I say this as a man who was born years after his death; a man with no claim on MLK’s legacy; a man with a Deep South lineage where my grandfather still spoke of “The War of Northern Aggression.”
In the end, I have to agree with Tavis Smiley who says, “King is the greatest single individual this country has ever produced.” May he continue to produce fruit in all of us – black, white, Latino, or Asian – because we need extremists more than ever, extremists in love.