Many critics portrayed civil rights activists as extremists, a term that King addresses directly in his letter. While he first rejects the idea that he is an extremist, he later embraces the term, again citing parallels from the Bible of “extremist” actions that served a higher moral cause. He also uses this opportunity to condemn moderates whose silence and apathy he finds more detrimental to the cause of racial justice than the direct opposition of radical segregationists.
King begins by rejecting the idea that his actions are extreme, arguing that he falls between two ends of the spectrum of black desegregationists, and then returns to the idea with a new interpretation of the term “extreme.” He places complacent and defeated blacks on one side, unable to take action because they are so used to segregation or, in some cases, because they profit from it in some way; on the other side are the black nationalist movements, which he criticizes for their lack of faith in America and its institutions. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference are an example of a third way of reaching racial equality, “the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.” He notes that without this path of nonviolence that King and his followers espouse, the streets would be flooded in blood.
Later in his letter, King changes his mind and embraces the term extremist, finding “a measure of satisfaction from the label.” He then places himself within the context of Christian prophets, preachers, and American political leaders whose agendas were considered extreme at the time. He calls Jesus Christ an extremist for love, Paul for the Christian gospel, Abraham Lincoln for the abolition of slavery, and Thomas Jefferson for universal rights. Once again, King establishes a historical precedent for his work, citing the need for “creative extremism” as a catalyst for progress. He finishes his argument about extremism by redefining the term, specifying that by emulating Jesus on the cross, “an extremist for love, truth, and goodness,” he will rise above the critics and take the high road.
What is most troubling for King, however, is the inaction of moderate Americans who are unable or unwilling to take action against racial inequality. Just as he imbued the term “extremist” with positive connotations, King strips the term “moderate” of its diplomatic value. He begins by expressing disappointment with white moderates, who he considers more dangerous to the cause of racial equality than the Ku Klux Klan. The archetypal white moderate is paternalistic and condescending to blacks who take direct action, has a shallow understanding of the cause and little interest in learning more, and “prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” White moderates, in King’s opinion, fear the tension that arises from direct action, and blame black protesters for creating that tension. However, as he notes, “we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” This implies a willful ignorance on the part of moderates, a kind of racial malice disguised as moderation.
King also praises the white men and women who have not let complacency and willful ignorance take over and have joined the protests for racial equality. They, too, are considered extremists by authorities, or worse, “dirty nigger-lovers,” and have suffered some of the same injustices as blacks at the hands of police and authorities. In contrast to moderate whites, these white supporters “recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful ‘action’ antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.” By pointing to and praising white activists, King also reminds his audience that he is not anti-white, but anti-racist.
While his critics use the term extremism to marginalize the integrationist movement, King reclaims the word in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” drawing attention to the need for extremism at a time when too many moderate Americans are passively condoning racism through silence. He continues to create parallels between his work and that of early Christians, who were also considered extremists, but were just taking the moral high ground, regardless of the unpopularity of their ideas.
Extremism vs. Moderation ThemeTracker
Extremism vs. Moderation Quotes in Letter from Birmingham Jail
So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit ins and freedom rides.