In Dire Need of Creative Extremists

MLK Memorial on the national Mall
(h/t Mobilus In Mobili CC BY-SA 2.0)

While many would point to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial  in August 1963 as his most powerful, the words from King that most move me come from a letter written four months earlier, as he sat in the Birmingham jail. It was a letter written to local pastors, who expressed support for his cause but concern for the manner in which he came to Birmingham to protest. When looking back at historical letters, there are some that are products of their time that illuminate the events of that day, but which need footnotes and commentary to explain to contemporary readers.

King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is *not* one of those letters. I wish it was, but it isn’t. It’s all too clear, and speaks all too clearly even now.

In that letter, King identified “the great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom” not as the hoodwearing Klanners or the politically powerful White Citizens Council folks, but the white moderate. These are folks who

  • are more devoted to order than justice
  • prefer a negative peace – the absence of tension – to a positive peace – the presence of justice
  • constantly say they agree with your goals but not your direct methods for achieving them
  • feel no problem in setting a timetable for someone else’s freedom
  • live by the myth of time, constantly urging patience until things are more convenient

Anyone who has watched the news at any time over the last three years knows that this great stumbling block to freedom and justice, the Moderate, is an all-too-familiar presence, appearing in various guises. For example . . .

  • police officers who, as one African-American after another is beaten, abused, and killed by one of their colleagues, silently watch the attack as it unfolds, who refuse to intervene, who write up reports to cover for this conduct, and who by their silence and their words defend and justify assault and murder done under the color of law;
  • staffers at ICE facilities who, as children are separated from their parents, as people are crammed into unlivable facilities, as basic necessities like toothbrushes and soap are withheld, clock in and clock out without saying a word;
  • personal assistants, co-workers, and superiors who watch as victim after victim were abused by powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Jeffrey Epstein, and untold others, and who said nothing;
  • Susan Collins, hand-wringer extraordinaire, who expresses her deep concerns about this rightwing nominee or that destructive proposed policy, and nevertheless puts her concerns aside time and time and time again to confirm the nominee or enact the proposal into law;
  • media figures who practice “he said/she said journalism,” who twist themselves into pretzels in order to maintain their “access” to inside sources, and who refuse to call a lie a lie in the name of “balance”;
  • corporate bean counters, who place such things as quarterly profits and shareholder value ahead of worker safety and well-being, ahead of environmental concerns, or ahead of community partnership, saying “we can’t afford to . . .” when what they really mean is “we choose not to spend in order to . . .”;
  • lawyers who provide legal cover to those who abuse, torture, and terrorize, and the second group of lawyers who “let bygones be bygones” in order to not have to deal with the actions of the first group;
  • bishops and religious leaders who privately chastise abusive priests and pastors, but who fail to hold them publicly accountable and seek justice, out of a concern to not cause a scandal that would bring the religious organization into disrepute; and
  • leaders of sports programs who value winning so much that they are willing to look the other way when coaches, trainers, and doctors abuse athletes.

The tools of the Moderate are things like Non-Disclosure Agreements, loyalty to The Team, and the explicit and implicit power of the hierarchy. The Moderate may not be at the top of the pyramid, but as long as the Moderate can kiss up and kick down, they think they will be OK. They’ll keep their powder dry, waiting for a better time to act. But all too often, the Moderate refuses to use what they’ve been saving for that rainy day, even when they are in the middle of a Category 5 hurricane.

But there are signs of hope, and we’ve seen some of them as well over the last three years:

  • career government professionals – at the State Department like Marie Yovanovitch, at the Department of Defense like Captain Brett Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, at the Department of Health and Human Services like Dr. Richard Bright, at the Department of Justice like Brandon Van Graak, and others like them – who refused to worry about personal consequences to themselves and fudge the data, ignore the facts, shade the advice,  or stand silently by while others do so;
  • passers-by to acts of injustice, who not only document what is being done but who take action to hold perpetrators to account (NY dog walkers, represent!);
  • young voices like Greta Thunberg who refuse to go along to get along, who ask the tough questions of those in power, and who question the answers that mock the truth, and old voices like Elizabeth Warren who do the same; and
  • voices of political relative newcomers like Katie Porter, AOC, Stacy Abrams, who do not let their low spot on the political totem pole (or lack of a spot at all) keep them from speaking out for justice.

This past week, longtime AIDS activist Larry Kramer passed away. He founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to care for gays stricken with AIDS, while the government turned its eyes away from the problem. Later on, he founded ACT-UP, when he saw GMHC had become too domesticated and unwilling to rock the boat when the boat desperately needed rocking. He called out the gay community and he called out government officials, even those who were trying to help like Anthony Fauci, for not doing anywhere close to what was needed.

And in many respects, it worked. Maybe not as fast as it should have, or as well as Kramer would have liked, but it made a difference. From Kramer’s NY Times obituary:

The infectious-disease expert Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was one who got the message — after Mr. Kramer wrote an open letter published in The San Francisco Examiner in 1988 calling him a killer and “an incompetent idiot.”

“Once you got past the rhetoric,” Dr. Fauci said in an interview for this obituary, “you found that Larry Kramer made a lot of sense, and that he had a heart of gold.”

Mr. Kramer, he said, had helped him to see how the federal bureaucracy was indeed slowing the search for effective treatments. He credited Mr. Kramer with playing an “essential” role in the development of elaborate drug regimens that could prolong the lives of those infected with H.I.V., and in prompting the Food and Drug Administration to streamline its assessment and approval of certain new drugs.

In recent years Mr. Kramer developed a grudging friendship with Dr. Fauci, particularly after Mr. Kramer developed liver disease and underwent the transplant in 2001; Dr. Fauci helped get him into a lifesaving experimental drug trial afterward.

Their bond grew stronger this year, when Dr. Fauci became the public face of the White House task force on the coronavirus epidemic, opening him to criticism in some quarters.“We are friends again,” Mr. Kramer said in an email to the reporter John Leland of The New York Times for an article published at the end of March. “I’m feeling sorry for how he’s being treated. I emailed him this, but his one line answer was, ‘Hunker down.’”

Which brings me back to King’s letter and the title of this post:

. . . 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.

We’ve got plenty of extremists like Stephen Miller and the cop who knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he died. We’re in dire need of more creative extremists.

Which leaves me with one question: how will you be a creative extremist today?

19 replies
  1. OldTulsaDude says:

    In my view, most religions are based on divisiveness:, Saved v Sinners, Believers v Infadels, et al.

    Genuine freedom comes only from rejection of those norms and accepting in the most true sense that we are all equally human.

  2. Jim White says:

    One thing that I keep coming back to, and that I don’t think is getting enough attention generally, is the staggering number, 40 million or so, of people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. They see the injustice of billionaires continuing to loot the economy while they sit in their cars among thousands waiting for a bag of food from the food bank.

    A huge number of very creative souls are sitting at home, socially distanced, themselves victimized by the billionaires and watching the people of Minneapolis be subjected to violent repression merely for the audacious act of calling for justice for George Floyd.

    Maybe I’m being overly optimistic here, but I think we are on the verge of seeing the emergence of the most creative extremist movement our country has ever seen. I had long maintained that the only thing preventing those who have suffered greatly under the current exploitative economy taking to the streets to topple the government as we know it (even if that merely consists of voting virutally every Republican out of office) was their reliance on the pittance they get from the job they would lose by trying to shut everything down through mass demonstrations. There are enough people to do that now who no longer have a job to lose. All they have to do is to figure out how to do this without dying of the virus. I trust them to figure it out and will support the effort in any way I can.

    • Ken Muldrew says:

      I hope they can figure it out, too, but do you see any candidates to organize and lead such a movement? The social media campaign that galvanized “occupy” is probably a non-starter with nation-states interfering with social media on a grand scale. Shop stewards and the usual Marxist suspects are right out of the picture. Religious groups seem to be highly fractured in the US. Without organization, and especially without unity of everyone against the rich, these things go nowhere.

      • Jim White says:

        I think the big action will be bottom-up with few “leaders”, but Rev. William Barber has been doing great work with his Poor People’s Campaign and he’s a very inspiring speaker.

  3. harpie says:

    “are more devoted to order than justice”

    I had just read these words a few days ago, in a tweet by
    MLK‘s daughter, Beatrice King [Be A King]

    She posts two photos of men on a knee:
    1] Derek Chauvin and
    2] Colin Kaepernick
    Be A KING 6:54 PM · May 26, 2020

    If you’re unbothered or mildly bothered by the 1st knee, but outraged by the 2nd, then, in my father’s words, you’re “more devoted to order than to justice.”

    And more passionate about an anthem that supposedly symbolizes freedom than you are about a Black man’s freedom to live.

    • Peterr says:

      For those who know only a few lines from the “I Have a Dream” speech, King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” can be a shock to the system.

      Which is as it should be.

      • P J Evans says:

        Fred at Slacktivist posts it at least once a year, so we don’t forget.
        Dr King wouldn’t be happy with the burning and looting, but he’d understand why it happens.

  4. Lester Noyes says:

    Malvina Reynolds (1900-1977; author of “Little Boxes”, “What Have They Done To The Rain?” and many other great songs) wrote an answer to those who value order above justice, a song called “It Isn’t Nice”. The first verse & chorus:

    It isn’t nice to block the doorway,
    It isn’t nice to go to jail,
    There are nicer ways to do it,
    But the nice ways always fail.
    It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice,
    You told us once, you told us twice,
    But if that is Freedom’s price,
    We don’t mind.

    (You could look up the whole thing.)

  5. Skilly says:


    I like your Post and appreciate the purpose. Much like the great song, “Middle of the Road” by the pretenders you remind us of a seminal piece of the Martin Luther King, Jr. legacy. Sadly, many people do not know the background of that event. The clergy had written publicly to King to urge him to delay, not cancel, his proposed action in their city. One of the participants in that letter was the Rabbi Milton Grafman of the leading synagogue in town. His son Stephen Grafman, an Attorney and former DC federal prosecutor, spoke publicly about the events and effects the King letter had on his father’s legacy.
    These articles contain good context and impact of the Birmingham events.

    My point is not to undercut your call to action. I do wish to point out that there are many committed “activists” that are not visible. They work tirelessly behind the scenes trying to affect serious, sustainable and long lasting progressive changes. Sometimes even the most well intended and sound protests can backfire. I think that sometimes one can be too focuses on What happened and not enough on “Why it happened.”

    So be an activist. Be committed. Be active. Just organize and think through the goal of the protest and the consequences of the action on that goal.

    • Peterr says:

      Rabbi Grafman, for all his efforts and obvious sympathy for King and the black community, was speaking out of a position of privilege, and your last line might well have been addressed to him. Before objecting to King’s protest and asking that it be delayed, he might have thought through a little more to try to understand how that might be received.

      In calling on King and the black community to be patient, I have to wonder how long Grafman would have the black community of Birmingham wait. What are they do to in the meantime? For all his good intentions, he’s diminishing the rights of the black community to speak for themselves, on their own terms, in their own time, and with their own voices.

      Yes, allies are nice — even critical — and I get that activists can argue passionately about the right tactics, but asking the oppressed to sit back and let their oppression continue for a while? Yeah, that’s not going to go over very well.

      King didn’t call him a racist. He called him a moderate, and implicitly challenged him and others like him to give up calling the oppressed for patience and instead focus on calling on the oppressors for justice.

  6. timbo says:

    Thank you for the reminder about Martin Luther King, Jrs other letters from Birmingham. He was a truly great man who understood the principles and idealism of non-violence, and his words can still instill us with a dedication to do the right and best thing, not just the convenient thing.

  7. Blueride27 says:

    Greta Thunberg is my idol. I would stand in a line to shake her hand. I owe her my respect and gratitude for showing me a better path.
    The truth.

  8. Eureka says:

    Killer Mike spoke last night in Atlanta. I consistently find him to be a compelling modern speaker and wish I had transcripts (if such existed of his speech events, tending to be more context-dependent they would often require the type of annotation and so forth you describe).

    Here’s a clip, 8+ minutes, which needs no further explanation and in which he pegs some personal and local history to current events:

    “The whole country needs to stop right now and listen to Killer Mike. He’s verbalizing what a lot of us don’t know how to express [embedded video]”

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