It is impossible to call any single moment the turning point of the civil rights movement. Was it Rosa Parks walking to the front of a bus? The Montgomery Bus Boycott? The Freedom Rides? The Albany Movement? While all of these moments were crucial, it was the mass protests in Birmingham, coordinated by Martin Luther King, that made the movement a national one. It was during those protests that Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor set his K9′s and his fire hoses on unarmed men, women and children. Doing so brought on the condemnation of the entire world. The nonviolent response of the protesters led directly to the desegregation of that city. It also led to King’s imprisonment.
While in prison, on April 13, 1962, Dr. King read a story on the second page of the Birmingham News. The story was headlined “White Clergymen Urge Local Negroes to Withdraw from Demonstrations.” It quotes local clergymen calling the protests “unwise and untimely” (they never mentioned King by name) and speaking out against civil disobedience. King was accustomed to criticism of his work, and usually ignored it. He couldn’t let this one go. He sat down and began writing his response in the margins of the newspaper. It began, “Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas.” This was the genesis of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” On this day of celebration in his honor, it is worth re-reading.
In that letters most impassioned passages, King spoke out against “moderation,” and the “white moderates” who urged it upon the long-suffering citizens of the South:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
The extreme injustice of segregation called for extreme measures:
But 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? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
Dr. King was, of course, correct. Creative Extremists were needed, and he was the most creative and the most extreme of them. Speaking at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington the following year, King said, When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
Dr. King devoted his life to proving that sufficient funds were available in the bank of justice, and to forcing the United States to make good on its promissory note. The debt we owe him is infinite.
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