When it comes to the late Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s almost impossible to supplant the importance of his 1963 defense of his nonviolent strategies, a document entitled, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” 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 crafted a document entitled, “A Call for Unity,” imploring King 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 fiercely attacked the false peace that they paternalistically peddled. 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.
Was this approach, “extreme?” Absolutely, as King wrote: “Was not Jesus an extremist for love…Was not Amos an extremist for justice…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?
“In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified…All three were crucified for 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 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.”
At last, 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 us all—black, white, Latino, or Asian—because we need extremists more than ever, extremists in love.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.