Martin Luther King, Jr.: Extremist!
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Jan 16, 2006 at 11:35:00 AM EST
On the day the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I received a phone call from a member of the Presbyterian youth group I was in, telling me that some of the members of our congregation planned to march in nearby Newark, New Jersey to commemorate the life and death of this man. We had read and been inspired by King's 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in our youth group, and some of us tentatively began to ease ourselves into a suburban (and very sanitized) version of the Civil Rights Movement.

When I blithely told my parents not to worry about my going to Newark, since the Black Panther Party had guaranteed the safety of all marchers Black or White, they hit the roof. "If you go on that march," I was warned, "don't bother coming home." They thought of King as an "extremist."
In 1968 King was considered an "extremist" by many, at least in my mostly White bedroom community in northern New Jersey. The Black Panthers were considered "terrorists" who probably murdered White teenagers before serving breakfast. Newark was seen as a city of race riots, and thus apparently not an appropriate place for religious observance or commemoration.

My best friend Curt checked with his parents, and they offered me a place to stay until cooler heads in the congregation could intervene. We went on the march, and returned home. As in the story of old (although with a much shorter interval and after a few phone calls), my parents welcomed me home as the prodigal son. I tolerated them as the provincial parents. That's what being a teenager is about.

My son is now older than I was that day in 1968, and attending the UC Davis Law School in California. "The law school's building is named after Dr. King in recognition of his efforts to achieve social and political justice for the poor and disadvantaged," explained Dean Rex Perschbacher, in a recent letter to students concerning the day on which most Americans celebrate King's birthday.

Every day as the students arrive for classes at King Hall, they walk past a "life-size terra cotta sculpture" of King "mid-stride, wearing a clerical robe depicting carved illustrations of the civil rights movement," according to the school's website.Cite

In a letter to Dean Perschbacher, several student groups worry that in recent promotional materials and on the website, the law school has "hidden or downplayed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall School of Law name". They are unhappy with this circumstance, especially since the name "reflects the spirit and community of the law school and the students who choose to enroll" there.

I find both irony and hope in the serendipitous turn of events that finds my son at a law school named for someone who so profoundly changed my life; a civil rights leader who had no hesitation to break the letter of the law through non-violent civil disobedience in pursuit of the spirit of social and economic justice.

These days, King is still called an "extremist" by some. Whole pages on the Internet are devoted to attacks and smears. King's biographical entry on the free online publicly-edited encyclopedia Wikipedia has been repeatedly vandalized, as it was this morning, forcing editors to monitor the page constantly throughout this day of remembrance.

In his 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail" King at first bristled at being labeled an "extremist" by a group of fellow clergymen upset with his activism.

King wrote that he thought this over for a while, and then realized that in their respective days, the Biblical Amos, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson had all been thought of as extremists by mainstream society. King responded, "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 will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice--or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?"

Two issues are raised by King's clever reversal of the attack on him as an "extremist". First is that the term "extremist" has only relative meaning in terms of how far outside the "mainstream" norms of society a particular idea or act is located by some observer who claims a "centrist" position. Second, King suggests it is important to determine whether any non-normative idea or action defends or extends justice, equality, or democracy--or whether it defends or extends unfair power or privilege.

Ultimately, the concept of "extremism," and the use of the term as a label, is of little value in studying or challenging prejudice and ethnoviolence. As professor Jerome Himmelstein argues, the term "extremism" is at best a characterization that "tells us nothing substantive about the people it labels", and at worst the term "paints a false picture."

Often, analysts use the term "extremism" in a way that implies that ideas and actions are always linked. This is not the case. We need to separate ideology from methodology. King's ideas may have been outside the mainstream for his day, but he promoted non-violence; and while civil disobedience often involves a minor criminal act, it is not the same as an act of terrorism. Given the way the term "extremist" is sometimes used, it can serve as a justification for state action that is repressive and undermines Constitutional guarantees. Under the Patriot Act and other repressive federal laws passed since the attacks on 9/11, if King was alive today, he would probably be under surveillance as a potential "terrorist", just as he was spied on during the 1960s.

Before my son returned to law school after winter break, I dug around and found the black cloth armband I wore that day in 1968 when I marched in Newark to commemorate the passing of King. We spoke of these matters, and I asked my son to think about the issues on this day when we remember the man, but all too often forget the full range of his message. That's what being a parent is about--even when your children are now adults.

And the message of King deserves to be repeated and carried down through generations: if we are to have community rather than chaos, we all must challenge racism, economic injustice, and war.

That's what this day is about.
Read the text of King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail".
Read the text of famous speeches by King, and listen to audio excerpts here.

Portions of this essay first appeared in 2004 in my article, "Hate, Oppression, Repression, and the Apocalyptic Style: Facing Complex Questions and Challenges," Journal of Hate Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, Institute for Action against Hate, Gonzaga University Law School.

Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates
The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
Chip's Blog

To this day, I don't really speak with my family regarding Martin Luther King, Jr.; the few times I've tried, it's generally resulted in tirades on how King was a "communist" and pushing for "special rights" (wow, almost the same line as dominionists claim regarding LGBT people now, in fact).

And yes, sadly, you still see this sort of stuff promoted (even though it's now known the claim was part of a vendetta against King by J. Edgar Hoover and largely debunks it), and not just by known racialist groups like Stormfront (a racist website that the ADL has described as a "veritable supermarket of online hate")--but by a group catering to the "Christian Patriot" community, a hardline dominionist webpage with links to Michael Marcavaige's "Repent America" (the homepage, by the way, is one of the most blatant examples I've seen of the "real face" of dominionism), and even dominionist-friendly politicians Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms (the latter of whom is actually quoted on the racist Stormfront website); dominionist-apologist Tony Snow has been linked to Stormfront, including the very hate site in question claiming King was a communist.

(Yes, the claim that King was a "communist" is a Very Big Deal in dominionist communities; remember, especially the premillenial dispensationalists explicitly equate communism with Satanism.)

Then again, knowing all the links between dominionism and racism, it's sadly not surprising this is still in common currency in the dominionist community :P

by dogemperor on Mon Jan 16, 2006 at 12:58:43 PM EST

In certain premillenialist circles the agents of the Antichrist include Godless communists, liberal secular humanists, feminists, and homosexuals. In the 1960s, an additional claim was that the Civil Rights Movement was engineered by communists to cause racial unrest and pave the way for a Soviet tinvasion. Really!
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Tue Jan 17, 2006 at 06:49:32 PM EST
That's actually largely where I'm familiar with it--being a walkaway from one of the premillenial dispensationalist dominionist churches in question (that demonised LGBT folks, feminists, civil-rights workers, "secular humanists", "Godless communists", the whole nine yards).

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Personally we could label people like Ghandi and Martin Luther King extremist, but I personally look at the heart of their messages and that they did stand upto the tyranny of power and privelidge...when the british occupied India, they dominated the agenda... Indians had no rights compared to the British and the British prospered  often at the expense of the Indians, arbitrarily ruling over them. Look at the white slave master and the power he had over his black slaves, he prospered from their hard work and labor and what did the black slave receive for  his labor,certainly no rewards monetarily or otherwise. He may have been an "obedient" servant, but what did he gain from it? It shows how those in power and priveledge could exploit others to their benefit and use tyranny and power to enslave others for their own profit at the expense  of others. Blacks have not prospered under the white mans rule, many of them are still impoverished and struggling for human dignity... The concept that just because others can dominate and bend others to their will , does not prove they are superior... it just proves they got away with injustices and atrocities  because of that power..The concepts that promote justice, humanity,human rights are righteous ideals that support the idea that all men are created equal... should we be any different? Letting others who  rule through power and privledge,  to use that power to tyrannize and take advantage of people... and  to abuse that power?

by akaladystar on Mon Jan 16, 2006 at 07:08:44 PM EST
Also I'd like to add this....This is a quote from a book by Taro Gold.."The unity of those associated by mere authority,power,or greed is ultimately weak and unstable.In contrast the unity of those united by the heart--,by bonds of respect,honesty and compassion--is strong and unshakable." I think this is important as a concept promoting human dignity and respect for others as well as human rights.

by akaladystar on Tue Jan 17, 2006 at 12:15:28 PM EST
To cite another example from the bible in the old testament with the story of Moses...we all know that he stood up to the pharoah and demanded that he let the hebrew people go."Exodus 3"7 ,Then the Lord told him,"You can be sure I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries for deliverance from their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. So I've come to rescue them from the Egyptians and lead them out of Egypt into their own good spacious land.....The cries of the people of Israel have reached me, and I've seen how the Egyptians have oppressed them with heavy tasks.."Now go, for I am sending you to the Pharoah. You will lead my people out of Egypt..." So wouldn't you say that Moses  acted in civil disobedience to an established rule?" Was that a criminal act  or act of justice?

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by shaka22 on Wed Jun 10, 2020 at 12:00:26 PM EST

Just to be clear, my essay was meant to support King's civil disobedience and oppose the use of the term "extremist" by all sides. :-)
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Tue Jan 17, 2006 at 06:52:06 PM EST
Dr King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail," is certainly very poignant in his rebuke of middle-class America and their preference for the status quo VS action against injustice.  However!  I think he may have unintentionally exposed a paradigm that existed then, thousands of years before Dr King, and now. Dr. King emphasizes, however very kindly, his disappointment in the local clergy and their willingness to accept the status quo, especially regarding their criticism of his efforts to seek justice and equality for the black and oppressed.  

What I see in his writings is what I contend is the root of many injustices and atrocities for many thousands of years, and while I don't mean to offend the highly religious readers, I think it's worth consideration that perhaps religions of all sects have an inadvertent propensity to teach hatred. What are the roots of prejudice and hatred but ignorance of other beliefs and cultures and the reasons for their existence.  The very reason people fear and are therefore ignorant of other cultures is their lack of knowledge and understanding of those cultures (culture simply defined as languages, beliefs practices, norms, values and behaviors).  The basic teachings of many "religions" is that the acceptance of alternative beliefs, or even delving into the possibility that they exist at all, will result in dire consequences, including eternal damnation (otherwise proselytized as burning in hell, or failure to achieve eternal glorification.)  Simply stated? Teaching fear, resulting in ignorance!

Dr. King's letter touched on this while addressing his letter to the clergymen, who surely subscribed to the status quo of their congregational population, for that's what they taught them to begin with.  Does anyone think for a moment that any of those clergymen who received Dr. King's letter would, for even a fleeting moment, consider opposing their congregation's current views related to the unrest of the times?  I would contend No!  Therefore, in place of internal retrospect, searching for the moral fibers from which we should all consider ourselves built, the almost subliminal message was in fact "fear this man and what he stands for!  Fear those who are his followers, for they represent a threat to our current beliefs, our way of life, our current status!"  I would bet that the clergymen addressed in Dr. King's letter would sooner commit suicide than to acquiesce to his rebuke of their congregational status quo.

Unfortunately, our comfort levels with the status quo will always subvert moral judgment, regardless of those who are involved.  After all, there are very few who will abandon comfort and luxury for the benefit of those who not only don't share in such, but are even barred from seeking it due to their position in life.

by gradeaaadad on Tue Jan 17, 2006 at 10:43:18 PM EST

"In court papers filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Justice Department lawyers revealed that Google has refused to comply with a subpoena issued last year for the records, which include a request for 1 million random Web addresses and records of all Google searches from any one-week period."

"Already on the defensive over its domestic spying program, the Bush administration has alarmed privacy and free-speech advocates by demanding search information about millions of users of Google and other Internet companies."

"The moves raise questions about how far the government should be allowed to go to probe into U.S. homes. The administration is pushing back hard, defending its surveillance as helping to protect the nation from terrorism (Man! does that ever sound familiar!) and, to a lesser extent, shield minors from pornography (what a bunch of horse shit!)"

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I say "good for you," Google! When is this going to end? When are people going to say "enough is enough?" Who the hell does this man think he is? Does anyone remember the presidential debates wherein Bush indicated that he was beyond reproach (and question) because he was "the President of the United States?" What an egocentric man this person has become! And what a threat to our human rights he is!

by gradeaaadad on Sat Jan 21, 2006 at 11:13:32 PM EST

Perhaps the phrase "egocentric man" should be replaced with "egomaniac!"

Friends, we are entering a horrifying time! We are literally peering into the abyss of total banishment of the very civil rights this country is based upon. My God! Before long, we'll need a Bush-issued hall pass to use our own bathrooms, only to have our actions observed by the Bush dynasty to determine if we are, or are not,pissing on their interpretation of freedom (under the guize that we may be toilet terrorists threatening our very bathroom way of life.)

The Patriot Act has indeed reversed our liberties to that of the fiefdoms of early Europe, reducing centuries of efforts to develop basic human rights to a mere momentary, insignificant hiccup in history.

Think about it! In less than 6 years, our friends on Capital Hill have reversed centuries of efforts to secure basic human rights for all.

Abdication of our civil rights in reaction to the attacks of 9/11 has not just sent us down the path of self-destruction, it has hauled our asses down that path with the vicious velocity of a snake attacking and devouring the unsuspecting mouse. This lightening-speed attack towards total relinquishment of, not just our (the United States) rights, but towards relinquishment of the world's freedom as well, has placed our planet in jeopardy. I am truly very, very concerned for the generations to come. Their future is in an ominously precarious situation

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