Today—the fiftieth anniversary of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination—I went back and re-read his powerful, best-known essay, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Dr. King, only 34 years old at the time, wrote his now-famous letter while he sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in April of 1963. He didn’t know it then, of course, but he only had five years left to live.
Arrested for planning and participating in coordinated non-violent marches and sit-ins against racism and Jim Crow segregation, Dr. King spent eleven days in jail. In his cell someone gave him a copy of a newspaper editorial written by eight clergymen—seven Christian ministers and one Jewish rabbi—titled “A Call for Unity.”
In their editorial, those eight white clergymen criticized the peaceful protestors, making veiled references to black civil rights leaders Dr. King, Fred Shuttlesworth and Southern Christian Leadership Conference activist Ralph Abernathy as “outsiders.” The clergymen advised “our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations,” to engage in local negotiations, and use the courts when rights were being denied rather than publicly protesting:
… we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. … we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.
That critical editorial, written by clergymen like him, compelled Dr. King to begin writing a response immediately. In fact, he started Letter from Birmingham Jail in the margins of the newspaper where the white clergy’s editorial had appeared.
In his letter, Dr. King responded to the clergy’s “outsider” label by citing the Bible:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns: and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom far beyond my own hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, which he wrote in those margins and on scraps of paper smuggled into his jail cell by a friendly black trustee, then addressed its central theme of “extremism:”
… I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent [over racial injustice] can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.
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?
As I read Dr. King’s powerful letter, I asked myself—what does it take to be an extremist for love? What kind of life do we all need to lead to become that kind of extremist?
I find the answers to those questions in the Baha’i teachings, which recommend that we rid ourselves of prejudice and racism, work for social justice, and experience “extreme kindliness and love” for all humanity:
O ye loved ones of the Lord! This is the hour when ye must associate with all the earth’s peoples in extreme kindliness and love, and be to them the signs and tokens of God’s great mercy. Ye must become the very soul of the world, the living spirit in the body of the children of men. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 20.
In fact, Abdu’l-Baha exemplified what an extremist for love could actually do in the world, by the force of his own example. After forty years in prison for believing in the Baha’i teachings, Abdu’l-Baha devoted his life to feeding the hungry, nursing the sick and urging humankind to love one another by destroying racial and religious prejudice and bringing about universal peace. He asked us to free ourselves from hatred, associate with all people of all colors, creeds and classes in a spirit of kindliness and friendship, and most of all recognize the oneness of God and the unity of humanity:
…there is need of a superior power to overcome human prejudices, a power which nothing in the world of mankind can withstand and which will overshadow the effect of all other forces at work in human conditions. That irresistible power is the love of God. It is my hope and prayer that it may destroy the prejudice of this one point of distinction between you and unite you all permanently under its hallowed protection. Baha’u’llah has proclaimed the oneness of the world of humanity. He has caused various nations and divergent creeds to unite. He has declared that difference of race and color is like the variegated beauty of flowers in a garden. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 67.
So on this day, when people all around the world mourn the passing of Dr. King a half-century ago, I’d like to ask you to join me in honoring his life by contemplating what it takes to become an extremist for love.
We nurse the sick in tenderness and the kindly spirit of love; we do not despise them because they are ill. Therefore, we must exercise extreme patience, sympathy and love toward all mankind, considering no soul as rejected. If we look upon a soul as rejected, we have disobeyed the teachings of God. God is loving to all. Shall we be unjust or unkind to anyone? Is this allowable in the sight of God? God provides for all. Is it befitting for us to prevent the flow of His merciful provisions for mankind? God has created all in His image and likeness. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 286-287.