King addressed the term and label of extremism in his writing directly. Initially, he dismissed the idea that he was an extremist; however, later, he redefined that label. Dr. King critically evaluated the two opposing sides, which were the radicals and the complacent (Burrow 17).
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As applied to the latter group, he defined them as those “drained of self-respect and a sense of somebodiness” (King 4). He further noted that true extremists were the participants of the different black nationalist groups. He stressed that extremists were promoting violence and racist behavior against the white members of the population. This way, he positioned himself amid black America.
Further in the letter, Dr. King embraced the label and added a positive connotation to it. In particular, he “gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist” (King 4). He discussed multiple examples of when political or spiritual leaders were considered extremists. For example, he called Jesus Christ an extremist “for love” (King 4). King also mentioned that Thomas Jefferson was considered an extremist for fighting for universal rights.
By providing these examples, Dr. King illustrated that creative extremism was the power capable of accelerating progress. By redefining the label, he was capable of rising above the people criticizing such a worldview.
Importantly, the discussion of the label pushed King to reflect on the term “moderate.” These were the people who were not eager to fight or ignored racial inequality. A moderate “prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” (King 3). According to King, such people were afraid of any action. This meant that they engaged in deliberate ignorance, which implied racial malice. Therefore, such people were trying to disguise their true motive (Stearns 175). By contrasting the two opposing sides, Dr. King put the reasoning behind each position to the forefront.
Burrow, Rufus, Jr. Extremist for Love: Martin Luther King Jr., Man of Ideas and Nonviolent Social Action. Fortress Press, 2014.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail. 1963. Web.
Stearns, Richard. The Hole in Our Gospel Special Edition: What Does God Expect of Us? The Answer That Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World. W Publishing Group, 2014.