Martin Luther King and the History of Religious Extremism

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” would make it on my list of must-reads for American cultural literacy. Written as he awaited release from a Birmingham, Alabama jail in 1963, King explained why the non-violent protests couldn’t “wait” any longer, as some moderate white Christians asked him to do.

“When you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro,” King wrote, “living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”

Rev. Martin Luther King, head-and-shoulders portrait, seated, facing front, hands extended upward, during a press conference / World Telegram & Sun photo by Dick DeMarsico. 1964. Library of Congress collections, public domain.

King wove together learned references to the likes of Socrates, Aquinas, Reinhold Niebuhr, T.S. Eliot, and Marin Buber, along with a mobilizing passion for his cause. Of course the whole letter is suffused with biblical concepts and references. Perhaps the most arresting historical passage of all is this one, where King combines a biblical, Reformed, and American view of “extremism”:

“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: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”

Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” 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?”

King was keen to show how the civil rights movement was part of the broader flow of biblical, Reformed, and American history. This historical connection, he thought, might convince reluctant white Christians of the justice and precedence for the cause.

This prompts a few observations:

-Part of King’s genius was his ability to pair deep learning with disruptive activism for justice. He shows that these two are not mutually exclusive.

-King’s citing of Martin Luther and John Bunyan reminds me how recurrence to first principles can ironically lead to radical, inflammatory stances on behalf of conscience.

-King’s appropriation of Jefferson, the slave owner, as an “extremist for love” speaks to that strange contradiction between American ideals and the failings of many American leaders. King did not hesitate to employ Jefferson’s ideas, even though he knew Jefferson’s life was tainted by his slave-owning.

King’s history of “extremism” was built, in part, on a biblical/Reformed/American framework. Don’t be surprised if adhering to those ideals gets you labeled an extremist, from time to time.

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