Though we’ve arrived back in Lexington, our class still continues to learn a great deal. Recently, Professor Delaney passed out a copy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for us to read. I must admit, though I feel as though I should have by this point in my educational career, I had not ever read this letter in its entirety before. Though I knew Dr. King to be a profound, moving orator and an intelligent, inspiring leader, I was extremely struck by the absolute persuasive genius of his argument. Most specifically, I loved how Dr. King dealt with the argument of he and the other activists’ presence as “outside agitators”; by using both biblical and historical context, Dr. King reminded the Clergy and continues to remind those who study this letter today that sometimes, “extremists” or “agitators” are moral, nonviolent people acting on behalf of what they believe to be just and true.
Addressed to a set of Clergymen who had criticized Dr. King’s visit to Birmingham in the Spring of 1963 as “unwise and untimely,” the Letter frames many of its logical points in a Christian context. Dr. King knew his audience, and in only the third paragraph of the ten-page letter, he appeals directly to Christian tradition in a way that the Clergymen would immediately recognize by writing, “…I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ…so I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town” (King, Jr., from http://www.africa.upenn.edu). By comparing the Civil Rights movement to the spread of Christian faith, Dr. King incorporates his ideals and his reasons for coming to Birmingham into a discourse with which his critics in the Church would no doubt identify. Dr. King completely dispels the notion that he could sit idly by and let injustice happen in Alabama by stating, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”(King, Jr.).
Later in the Letter, Dr. King beautifully addresses the concept of “extremism.” Acknowledging that many of the critics of nonviolent direct action categorize Civil Rights activists as “extremists”, Dr. King states that he did not mean to be “extreme” on the spectrum of other oppressed blacks in the South. However, he later states, “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist…I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love?”(King, Jr.). Dr. King then goes on to cite several examples, both biblical and historical, that both the clergymen for whom this letter was intended and students today would immediately recognize. Dr. King adds the names of Amos, Paul, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson to the ranks of “extremists” who fought for justice, the gospel, piety, freedom, and equality. I found the argument to especially effective: all of the above men are lauded by our society for their heroism for Christianity and for America. Yet, at one point or another, all were considered “radical” by their adversaries; each set forth an idea that, while important, had not yet been embraced by the whole populace at the time when each man took the world stage. Each man faced and endured incredibly adversity from their opponents. Similarly, the brave men and women of the Civil Rights Movement strove to demonstrate to the United States that “separate but equal” wasn’t equal, that every American should have the right to vote, and that no one should endure racial discrimination and intolerance in nation that embraced the lofty ideals of “liberty and justice for all”. If being “radical” or “extreme” meant standing up for what he believed to be right, then Dr. King asserted that he was quite content with being labeled as such.
Along our journey through the South for this class, we met several people who, at the time, were considered “extremists” or “radicals” simply for exercising their constitutional right to sit where they wished on international bus lines and to enjoy American citizenship without discrimination. Usually, when I hear the word “extremist”, I picture a violent person who embodies ideals that are actually quite harmful to most of the populace. However, the activists we were fortunate enough to meet did not fit that image in the slightest. All were nonviolent. All embodied the ideals of freedom and equality. Yet, their generation categorized them as “extremists”. However, our talk with Dr. Ed King was quite reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King’s treatment of the notion of extremism in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. I remember asking Dr. Ed King about his involvement in the Civil Rights movement. He said that all his life, he had considered himself a “moderate”, and when he first joined the movement, he remembered thinking that surely, other moderates would come to the aid of he and his fellow activists; after all, they were only students, they were nonviolent, and they were acting for a cause that embraced the American tenets of justice and equality for all. However, he quickly learned that no “moderates” would come to the aid of he and his fellow activists, and he soon found himself being called “extreme”, simply for joining the cause for Civil Rights.
Reading Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter and thinking back to my conversation with Dr. Ed King, I wonder if there will be a point in my life where my viewpoint on a subject will be considered “radical”. I also wonder if I will have the strength to embrace my “radicalism” if what I’m being radical for is the right thing to do. I hope so; though, much like Dr. Ed King, I’ve always considered myself a moderate, I’ll have to think back to Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and all the other “extremists” whose ranks I’d be happy to join.