Sunday, January 17, 2016

Martin Luther King Jr. on extremism.

From Dr. King's "A Letter from Birmingham Jail":
You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist... 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 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 ends of my days before I make 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?
In a post three years ago I noted that Dr. King's letter, written in his jail cell on scraps of writing paper that visitors secretly gave him, was a response to a letter signed by several prominent Alabama clergymen urging an end to the non-violent demonstrations going on at the time in Birmingham, counseling "patience" on the part of those seeking justice, and praising local news media and law enforcement officials for their "calm" response (which, in the instance of law enforcement, included the use of fire hoses and dogs on peaceful demonstrators, including children).

One of the signatories of that letter was C.C.J. Carpenter, the Episcopal Bishop of Alabama who was then the senior (but not presiding) bishop in the Episcopal Church U.S.A. He was what at the time was called a "Southern moderate"; he probably believed that the system of legally sanctioned racial segregation was both wrong and doomed, but wanted it to end gradually so as not to cause more social stress than he thought necessary. As I noted ruefully in that post, had I been in Bishop Carpenter's position, I would likely have signed the letter. Although I've spent my career in a profession, law, thought to be combative in nature, I was drawn to the side of the work that involved negotiation and compromise. This is fine and well; negotiation and compromise are essential, and we could certainly use more of it in Congress today. Still, there are times when it is necessary to take an uncompromising stand, when "Justice delayed is justice denied" must be the guiding principle.

Photo: Library of Congress.

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