Monday, January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Extremist!

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.

Ported from Talk to Action
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Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates

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