MLK’s legacy proves that extremism is a double-sided coin

Civil disobedience and reform are not born of moderatism and respectful behavior; they are the extremist’s work. Photo Submitted by QualityLenz

How many of us think about the connotations or the denotations of the words we use? I would bet few of us do. How many of us realize the changing meanings and associations of words over time? I will bet that a few of us reflect on the events that change our perception of certain words.

When you think of the word extremist or fundamentalist, very rarely is it in a positive light. I do not blame you; I, like you, shudder at the use of these words and hesitate to associate myself with them. Their reputation is too foul and the events associated too frightful. 

However, we are nearing a national holiday for a man, like many others, regrettably dubbed as an extremist. He was a man who embraced the word if it meant that he incited change and fought injustice. 

An extremist is someone whose beliefs are far from the center or moderate societal beliefs. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man whose political views and societal goals were far from moderate citizens. Therefore he was found in the crossfire of the complacent’s condemnation. 

So why do we hold indignation for extremists when it is they who incite the fires of change? Some of the most outstanding leaders of our present and our past, Martin King, Malcolm X, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and so many others, faced the accusation of extremism. 

They showed us that we could be better and shouldn’t be afraid to fight for reform and advancement. So, why do we shy away from the word and whisper it under our breath rather than wear it proudly?

But it is also the extremist that teaches us that we need both sides of the coin. That while we may have terrorists, like the Nashville bomber or the KKK, we also have King, whose extremes were for love, justice and civil equality. 

As we condemn the extremist for being extreme, we must also condemn the moderate for their impassiveness to injustice. King detailed his disappointment with the moderate in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”.

“The white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”  

As in the era of King’s leadership, we live in a time that needs civil disobedience, protests and demonstrations, and that restrained freedom is simply not enough. For, if anything, this past year taught us that “whoever takes a life … it will be as if they killed all of humanity; and whoever saves a life, it will be as if they saved all of humanity,” as the Quran 5:32 states.