Martin Luther King, Jr. and Positive Extremism

In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” dated April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the subject of extremism as it applied to the nonviolent direct action he was advocating in Birmingham. Specifically, he was responding to the fact that he had been labeled an extremist by “white moderates” and the Christian leadership of local churches. Rather than arguing against the label, King embraced it and justified it through a well thought out argument that both validated positive forms of extremism and equated the passivity of the white moderates to a form of extremism in itself, because their inaction resulted in a form of severe injustice. For King, extremism and the conception of extremism was a dynamic tool that he used to convey his message and advocate for the ending of segregation.

When the word extremism is used, the first thing that probably comes to mind are violent activities intended to create a political statement, including actions by groups like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, or the Ku Klux Klan. One could even argue that some modern government policies are extremist. Certainly some people in the United States would consider the PATRIOT Act to be an extremist response to a problem, because it violates certain ideas that are held to be just and inviolable, like the right to privacy. Through his argument, King defended nonviolent direct action by establishing the concept of positive extremism. He defined it and presented it as a means of seeking justice which would result in brotherhood and understanding, or equal treatment for segregated people.

For King, the term extremism did not have one meaning. Extremism was dynamic and could be either a positive or a negative attribute. He described Jesus as an extremist for love, Amos as an extremist for justice, and Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel. He called Martin Luther an extremist for principles, John Bunyan an extremist for conscience, Abraham Lincoln an extremist for freedom and Thomas Jefferson an extremist for equality (King, 7). Using these examples, he tied extremism to historical figures that have gained widespread recognition as just and righteous men whose ideas and/or policies their contemporaries perceived as extremist. Doing this was King’s way of saying that what society may at first consider to be extreme, may on closer inspection be a positive change.

Extremism isn’t always a negative attribute. King redefined it as nothing more than a measuring stick to judge the level of passion a person has for a cause that they are engaged in. If someone has been labeled an extremist, that doesn’t necessarily mean their cause is wrong or unjust; it simply means that their goal contradicts prevailing societal norms. Considering the contributions to the world of the people King cited as being extremists, extremism can be greatly beneficial. It’s just a matter of how a person perceives what’s being done, so the key is to convince a person that they must engage with a topic, and then to get them to engage with the topic objectively. To do that, King advocated using nonviolent direct action. To be effective, King had to present nonviolent direct action in Birmingham as a form of positive extremism and, more importantly, defend the cause it supported as both universal and just.

Since King’s nonviolent direct action was termed extremism by the Christian leadership and white moderates, he created a case for nonviolent direct action being positive extremism. First, he defined nonviolent direct action as an attempt to create tension in society, but not violent tension. The point of the tension, he said, was to make an issue unavoidable, so that society would be forced to confront it, in much the same way that Socrates used his questioning to try to force a person to confront an idea directly (King, 2-3). He was criticized for pushing the issue, but King felt that this was necessary, since no problem will solve itself just by adding time (King, 3). The plight of Negroes in the United States had been actively ignored, even by the community he thought would be most ready to promote brotherhood and understanding: the white moderate and the leadership of the Christian church (King, 5 & 9). Change requires a catalyst and King intended nonviolent direct action to be that catalyst, not to harm anyone or specifically to cause violence, but to force the public to engage with the topic and examine it critically. When an issue is pushed to the side and isn’t in the limelight, it’s easy to forget about it, or to mentally gloss over the subject and continue accepting the status quo, an attitude that King was firmly against (King, 3).

To universalize the goal of the nonviolent direct action in Birmingham, desegregation, King equated it with the pursuit of justice. Since his audience was primarily Christian, he did this by appealing to Christian morality. He wrote that, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law” (King, 4). He went on to quote St. Thomas Aquinas, a notable Christian thinker as writing, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust” (King, 4). King then explained that since segregation distorted the soul and damaged the personality, it was inherently unjust, according to Christian thinking and conceptions of morality (King, 4). He also compared the segregation of society to the separation of man from God, which is a powerful image, considering the goal of Christianity is to reunite with God through righteous action. By appealing to Christian concepts of justice and unification, King legitimized the movement’s goal of desegregation to his audience.

Having defined the issue of segregation as morally wrong and unjust and nonviolent direct action as positive extremism, King was left with the task of engaging the moderate whites and Christians in a way that would imply that inaction was in itself a form of extremism. He did this by defining passivity in the face of an unjust situation as a form of extremism. King began by criticizing town leaders for not agreeing to engage in negotiations with Negro leaders. He also criticized shopkeepers for failing to adhere to previously made agreements regarding racially motivated signage (King, 2). To tackle this problem, King refers to the fact that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” (King, 5). This analogy equates the passivity of the white moderates in Birmingham with the (presumably) white moderates in Germany, drawing parallels between the status of Jews in Germany and the status of Negroes in Birmingham. While not a perfect analogy, it catches the attention and gives a very real and tangible example of what can happen when good people do not speak up in the face of oppression and injustice. And, certainly, contributing to the death of six million people through inaction could be interpreted as a passive extremism.

One of King’s main themes in his letter is that sometimes society must be disrupted so that people reach a better understanding of what processes are actually affecting society and how to change them for the better. Having quoted Socrates in his letter and incorporating the idea of risking social disruption in pursuit of the ‘good’, in this case desegregation, it is obvious that King was familiar with the themes of Plato’s work, specifically The Trial and Death of Socrates. One of the themes of The Trial and Death of Socrates is the conflict between maintaining the status quo versus risking social disruption in the pursuit of truth, or the ‘good’. Socrates does not intend to disrupt society to its detriment, but rather to call into question firmly held beliefs for the sake of the betterment of society through a deeper understanding of what justice is. In the same way, King does not intend to disrupt society to its detriment, but rather to call into question firmly held beliefs about segregation for the betterment of society through a deeper understanding of brotherhood.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a very well read and intelligent activist for desegregation. He incorporated successful arguments from historical sources (he also drew from Machiavelli’s philosophy) into his writing and added his own spin, the appeal to Christian values, in a way that blends them perfectly into a rational and convincing argument addressed to his specific audience. He justified his use of nonviolent direct action by redefining the idea of extremism and then identified his cause as just by associating it with Christian morality. Finally, he issued a call to action to the white moderates and Christian leadership by demonstrating that passivity is itself a form of extremist behavior when it leads to severe injustice. King was accused of extremism, so he turned extremism into a tool that could help him achieve his goals.

Works Cited

King, Jr., Martin Luther. 1963. “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Birmingham, April 16.

Islamism and “The Yacoubian Building”

The Yacoubian Building Book Cover

The Yacoubian Building Book Cover

The following is a short essay I wrote about The Yacoubian Building for an undergraduate history course.

In Alaa al Aswany’s book, The Yacoubian Building, Islamism and Islamists are primarily presented through the point of view of the character Taha El Shazli, the son of a doorman who lives on the roof of the Yacoubian building.  As the story progresses, the rise of Islamism in Egypt is presented as being directly related to socioeconomic background, the lack of adequate economic opportunities and corruption present in government and society.

Taha’s family was of very modest means.  Despite this, Taha was very intelligent and was able to excel at his studies because of his desire to become a police officer, which he believed would allow him to advance in life and gain the respect and dignity that he lacked while growing up in the Yacoubian building.  As the son of a doorman, he was often ridiculed and looked down on by the other residents, which he was forced to put up with because he had no other option.  Taha was sure that he would be able to succeed in his endeavor because he believed firmly in God, prayed regularly and avoided major sins (Aswany, 20).

Taha almost reached his goal, but his socioeconomic status caused his application to be rejected.  Before attending the character interview, he had spoken to officers in his district who told him that because he had no rich and influential family members he would have to pay a bribe of 20,000-pounds to guarantee his acceptance into the police academy.  Taha wasn’t financially capable of paying a bribe of that amount and given his religious devotion, he probably wouldn’t have done it anyway.  Instead, he believed firmly in his abilities and hoped that his devotion to God would enable him to overcome that obstacle.

Unfortunately, the board wasn’t interviewing for ability or the marks of a good police officer.  They were only interested in the corrupt practices of giving out government positions to family members or people with the right amount of money.  Even though they were impressed by Taha’s answers, when it was discovered that his father was a “property guard,” he was dismissed.  This was Taha’s first taste of corruption, another in a long line of blows to his dignity, and a serious threat to his chances of ever having a respectable life.

Taha’s next attempt to push past the boundaries set by his socioeconomic background was his enrollment in the Faculty of Economics at Cairo University.  In his new surroundings, however, he still felt the sting of class divisions and was drawn towards other people who, like himself, came from humble backgrounds.  These people were more religiously observant and Taha finally felt like he’d met people that would allow him the respect and dignity he was seeking.  The level of respect and the sense of belonging he finally felt with this new group of people, student Islamists, made him far more open to radicalization.  He felt that he was valued.  He was brought into an inner circle and introduced to an influential and charismatic leader, Sheikh Shakir, which validated his need for respect and purpose.

The event that crystallized Taha’s emergence as not just an Islmaist, but a jihadi Islamist, was the trauma he experienced when arrested after a demonstration protesting Egypt’s involvement in the Gulf War.  Already having spent most of his life being bullied and pushed around because of circumstances out of his control, he was bullied, tortured and raped by the very government entity that he had at one time hoped to work for.  The corruption that prevented him from serving his country as a police officer now served to facilitate his torture and radicalization.  When Taha was finally released from prison, his dignity as a man and a human being was shattered.  His faith was shaken.  Through coaxing from his Islamist mentors, however, he was convinced that he could best recover through renewed devotion and military-style training, which Taha readily agreed to out of an intense need for both healing and revenge.

In the end, Taha became a “martyr,” dying in the process of taking revenge on the man who ordered his rape.  Because of Taha’s socioeconomic background, he had limited options to start with.  Because of the corruption in the police department (and the government office that denied his claim of unfairness) he was pushed down a path that led him to associate with Islamist oriented people of a similar background.  Further government corruption in the form of sanctioned torture and degradation in prison caused Taha to pass the tipping point.  While not all Egyptians may follow the same path to Islamism, Aswany’s message is clear:  the lack of opportunities open to people of all classes and the government’s enabling of and participation in corruption helped to create violent Islamists.