ARCC News – Martin Luther King, Jr. and “Extremist” Love

January 2023

Martin Luther King, Jr. and “Extremist” Love

Apart from general familiarity with the federal observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in January and a few lines from his “I Have a Dream” speech, many Americans understand relatively little about the views of the nation’s most celebrated civil rights leader. In order to properly value his legacy and prevent his ideas from being misrepresented—now more than ever since the civil rights movement began—it’s essential to educate ourselves about exactly how Dr. King envisioned the US becoming a unified, peaceful, and anti-racist nation.

Here’s what Americans of all political leanings need to know about Dr. King and what it means to be a political moderate versus an extremist for love, or, in other terms, non-racist versus anti-racist.

MLK and White American Moderates in the Civil Rights Movement

Since before the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s to the present day, white moderates on both sides of the political aisle have prided themselves on being decent, reasonable people who reject racism and racial oppression. But, as King explains in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” racism is so deeply rooted in our systems that anyone who isn’t actively opposing racism through deliberate action is allowing it to persist and endure.

About halfway through “Letter,” King states that he “ha[s] been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.” In fact, he suggests that this mainstream group, not the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), is the greatest obstacle to achieving equality for Black Americans. King laments that even as white moderates claim to support justice for people of color, they conversely impede it, in part by remaining passive and in part by criticizing the methods and timing of civil rights work.

But, as King points out, those who frown on disruptive protests and boycotts are using backwards logic, since none of these would be necessary if people of color had not first been abused and oppressed for centuries, or if racial injustices had already been corrected. He likens this logic to complaining that a robbery victim precipitated the crime of theft.

He also asserts that no one is entitled to dictate the timetable on which any group of people should succeed in gaining basic constitutional rights. Yet this is exactly what people who have the luxury of racial privilege often feel is “reasonable.” They prefer, as King puts it, “a negative peace with the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

The Difference Between Non-Racism and Anti-Racism

This preference continues today as white right-wing and moderate Americans alike blanch with vehement sanctimony at the idea of being labeled as racist. Many consider it enough to avoid or disprove accusation and return to the ease of their lives as members of a dominant culture, perhaps even expressing a wish for justice sometime in the future. In other words, many are content with being (or being seen as) non-racist. Yet as Dr. King and current civil rights activists explain, the US must become actively anti-racist to achieve equality for people of color.

Becoming anti-racist involves deliberate and thoughtful effort, including a deep examination of assumptions, perceptions, legislation, policy, and disparities in lived experience. There are many ways to begin this journey, all of which involve taking direct action to eradicate systemic racism rather than simply hoping for it. One positive approach to this process is to execute mindful acts of radical love rather than remaining passively non-racist, which allows injustice and national divisions to fester and deepen rather than disappear.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Extremists for Love

In his letter, Dr. King asserts that one way to bring about justice and “positive peace” is to become what he calls an extremist for love. Initially, he explains, he felt frustrated when the “nonviolent direct action” he encouraged his fellow civil rights activists to take had been labeled by white moderate authorities as extremist. But he then considers the actions of historic “extremists” now venerated by millions, including Christ, the Hebrew prophet Amos, and Abraham Lincoln, among others.

Ultimately, King reveals that he is pleased to be compared with figures who were radical, not “reasonable,” in their pursuit of brotherly love and justice. He further illustrates what it means to be a true supporter of civil rights, saying that the activists worth emulating are those who “marched with us,” “sat in with us at lunch counters,” and were otherwise willing to get into what late congressman and friend of King, John Lewis, called “good trouble.”

You can learn more about evolving from non-racism to anti-racism by seeking out resources from anti-racist nonprofit and other organizations. For example, you can learn more about Martin Luther King Jr. and the concept of extremist love by listening to Season 1, Episode 6 of the ARCC of Change podcast series.

Learn How To Become Anti-Racist With ARCC

The Anti-Racism Commitment Coalition (ARCC) is an inclusive coalition of dedicated people committed to eradicating racism and spreading anti-racism throughout our communities, countries, and the world. We work to help and educate people on their transformative journey to anti-racism by providing access to related support and resources.

You can help us to build a racism-free world. Subscribe to receive news and updates about our work. Be sure to check out our newsletters and ARCC of Change podcast series. Show your commitment to anti-racism by purchasing ARCC merchandise or by making a donation.

Join us today!