Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Defense of Extremism

King believed extremism was a misnomer. He wasn’t the only one.

When I teach Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail in my U.S. survey course, we have a lot to talk about. There is the passage on the concept of the unjust law; the passage rejecting gradualism (“‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never'”); and the famous passage lacerating the white moderate that is making the rounds on Facebook today. However, I want to highlight another passage from the Letter, one of the most beautiful and true things King ever wrote.

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? … Was not Amos an extremist for justice? … Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel? … Was not Martin Luther an extremist? … And John Bunyan? … And Abraham Lincoln? … And Thomas Jefferson? … 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?

When I show students this passage, I follow it immediately with another quote:

I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!

Those sentences, I tell my students, were uttered just a year after King wrote the Letter. Who said them? Students will often guess that it was King again, or Malcolm X, or Lyndon Johnson. They’re surprised when I tell them the answer: it was, of course, Barry Goldwater.

King and Goldwater, each in his own way, understood that America is a force for good only when it is a force for change.

Why did King and Goldwater, two very different political thinkers, voice the same discomfort with being labeled extremists, using nearly identical language? In the classroom, I let my students come up with their own answers. But here’s my explanation: King and Goldwater, each in his own way, understood that the charge of extremism is a tool of the status quo, designed to silence dissent. Each realized that to be American is to recognize that there is something deeply wrong with America, and to do one’s utmost to fix it. Each recognized that America is only a force for good only when it is a force for change. They can’t both have been right about what change was needed, but they were definitely both right that something needed to be done.

Author: Jeremy C. Young

Jeremy C. Young is a Washington, DC-based historian and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940.