Martin Luther King: What Kind Of Extremists Will We Be?

The anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King will be celebrated tomorrow. Last year at this time it was an unusually poignant celebration as it coincided with the inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president. This year the holiday is shared with a much more troubling event: the earthquake in Haiti and its consequent devastation.

Nevertheless, the indefatigable hope that always underpinned King’s message can still serve as inspiration to those suffering in Haiti, their loved ones, and every empathetic soul that’s been bruised by unfathomable loss. King himself suffered many hardships in his quest for equality and justice. But his will was never weakened and he had an uncanny ability to turn tribulation into triumph. On that measure he was not ambiguous. From the cell of a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, King demonstrated the resolve that continues to serve as an example to us all. His was not a common plea for community service, but a challenge to commit oneself to positive change with the utmost urgency.

MLK: “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?”

The audacity of these questions is that they assume that we have already stipulated extremism as the starting point for how we approach advancement or adversity. These days that is a requirement for the success of any public endeavor. If we don’t hit the ground running, our feet will be swept out from beneath us by the reactionaries and obstructionists who favor the status quo. Witness the loudmouthed town howlers, the delusional anti-socialist-healthcare cranks, the Tea Baggers. Because of these mudstickers, our intensity must always be on high. Our dials must be turned to eleven. And we must apply all of our energy and insight to our goals. Because, as Dr. King wrote from the same cell in Birmingham…

“…the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

And it’s still true today.


4 thoughts on “Martin Luther King: What Kind Of Extremists Will We Be?

  1. As eloquent as it comes, Mark.

  2. I’ve been musing about that word “extremism” and find myself caught in a not-unusual dilemma. Who is more valuable: the person who takes the uncompromising hard-line or the person who does the quiet but time-consuming work of building coalitions but who also, by necessity, therefore has to make compromises? Maybe it’s a product of my increasing age, but I’ve seen just too many people on the left alienate potential allies by being abrasive, self-righteous, and uncompromising. With friends like these, who needs enemies? Yet, on the other hand, sometimes it’s those very people who *can* get the work done — especially fighting the court battles. So I guess we need both, but in different ways and contexts. I guess I’m particularly thinking about this in terms of the health-care debate: got friends who think the proposed legislation is so bad it *should* go down in flames, others who think “any part of the loaf is better than none.”

    • Who is more valuable? The answer is both are crucial.

      Success in politics has been described as the art of the possible. It is important to have people in decision making positions who can survey the landscape and recognize what is practically achievable. However, those people must be driven by the passion of idealists whose only motivation is to accomplish the best outcome possible.

      If we leave it to the pragmatists, we will always fall short of our goals. If we leave it to the idealists we will have a hard time ever making progress.

      With regard to the health care debate, I think the pragmatist capitulators were way over represented. The debate began at a disadvantage by not even putting single-payer on the table.

      There is a lot wrong with the health care bill as it stands now and I don’t think we should agree with it – but I do think we should pass it. Passing this bill does mean we we stop fighting for something better.

      FYI: You can be uncompromising without being abrasive or self-righteous.

  3. Yeah, I know. It just seems like there’s more of the bad kind (per capita) here in Maine. The guy who ran as a “Green” candidate for governor several elections ago, has the personality of a turnip — couldn’t get elected dogcatcher!

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